The Loess Hills as a Working Landscape

"Unique and globally significant"—that is how the Loess Hills of western Iowa have been described. The 200-mile expanse of hills contains many distinctive ecosystems and vistas. And the loess soil that makes up the hills is rare due to its depth and concentration, which is only rivaled in certain areas of China. So, if a working landscape is defined as a healthy, natural ecosystem that thrives under human influence, then the Loess Hills might be considered a model of a working landscape or at least a model of a future working landscape.

Social, Ecological, Economic

Within a healthy working landscape, people who live there are balancing their needs with the needs of the environment. Striking that delicate balance is referred to as mutual sustainability. All needs are met in a way that will maintain the landscape into the future. To achieve this sustainability, three elements need to work together—the social element, the ecological element, and the economic element. Each element needs the appropriate attention to stay healthy and in balance with the other two.

The Loess Hills is a good model of a working landscape because it has the social, ecological, and economic elements. It also shows how delicate the balance of these can be.

The social element involves the interactions between community members, tourists, business people, and families. Interactions can take place outdoors on the landscape or in businesses and homes. When the social element is as important as the ecological and economic elements, the Loess Hills is seen as a successful working landscape. An example is a bed and breakfast business in the Loess Hills. In an ideal situation, social interactions between guests and community members are balanced with ecological education (guests learn about the hills) and economic gain. A bed and breakfast, in this case, contributes to a healthy working landscape.

The ecological element is in balance with the other elements of a working landscape when the needs of the land and the ecosystems are met. An example of this could be a farm in the Loess Hills. Ideally, the farmer uses the natural resources to grow crops, and also uses proper conservation practices to preserve the soil and surrounding habitats. Farmers maintain the ecological balance while also keeping the social and economic elements in check.

The economic element in the Loess Hills works together with the social and ecological elements when money is made on an activity. But this activity can't overwhelm the other elements. For example, take tourism. There are areas in the Loess Hills that are fragile and beautiful, but also able to sustain tourism without hurting the environment. In these areas, the land managers (such as The Nature Conservancy) make huge efforts to know the fragile parts of the area and to allow tourism only in the ecosystems that can handle it. In this case, tourism can bring in money while also supporting the social and ecological needs of the Loess Hills.

Finding the Balance

The key to a working landscape is maintaining the balance of three elements—the social element, the ecological element, and the economic element. Parts of the Loess Hills are a good model of a working landscape. As people work to get into balance with the environment, the Loess Hills becomes a huge, healthy working landscape.

Explore More: Working Landscapes
Copyright 2004, Iowa Public Television
The Explore More project is supported by funds from the
Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust
and the USDE Star Schools Program.