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Iowa's Natural Heritage: The Loess Hills

posted on October 9, 2009 at 1:39 PM

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The natural world has never been static.  Still, Iowa's landscape has been altered more than any other state since Euro-American settlement.  And even pre-historic Indians used fire to manage the native prairie.

Still, as the human "footprint" grows, as in Iowa's Loess Hills, the challenge is to balance the competing needs of the natural world and the people who live in it, for the benefit of both. 

These are the Loess Hills in western Iowa.  A strip of land anywhere from 3 to 10 or so miles wide, the Hills extend roughly 200 miles, from northwestern Missouri to north of Sioux City, depending on how they are defined.

They’re the wind blown deposits of silt created  by thousands of years of glacial activity.  Their depth can run anywhere from more than 60 feet up to over 200 feet in some places.          

Loess soil itself is not a rarity.  But the depth of the soil in these hills is rare.  In addition, the “intricately carved terrain” also makes them rare.  And not only is the topography unusual in Iowa’s Hills, they are home to a rare combination of flora and fauna. 

Even the National Park Service has said the Hills “would be a suitable additon to the National Park System.” But that wasn’t deemed feasible.

Susanne Hickey, The Nature Conservancy:  "Lot of the national parks that we have, Badlands National Park, they're not productive lands.  They really don't have a lot of value when it comes to farming or agriculture.  Whereas in the Loess Hills that's really not the case."

The fact is the Loess Hills have been very hospitable to humans.

 This earth lodge at Glenwood in Mills County is a re-creation of a living space used by the Indians of what archaelogists call the Nebraska culture from about 900 to 1300 A.D.

 It was recreated by the Earth Lodge Society.  Some of it’s members gave us a tour.

Ted Smith, President, Earth Lodge Society:  "They had no sharp tools in those days at all, so they started a fire at the base of the tree and just kept pushing it in until the tree fell over."

The Glenwood group seemed to be a stable farming culture that raised corn, squash and beans, hunted and fished, and may have traded with other early inhabitants. 

The Glenwood people weren’t the first here. Humans have actually come and gone in this area since the end of the Ice Age,,probably for ten to 12 thousand years.  

These early peoples did affect the environment.  But they didn’t have nearly the impact that European settlers and their descendants have had with greater numbers and greater technology, in a much shorter period of time.

Jim Baylor’s farm encompasses 200 acres of Missouri River bottom lands and 250 acres in the Hills proper.  His ancestors came to Fremont County in 1849.  The house dates back to 1861. 

Baylor grew up in Lincoln, but he and his wife returned to the farm in the late 1970s after many years in Chicago.

Through a series of happenstances, Baylor endedup returning an area in the hills, called a bowl, to native prairie.

Jim Baylor:  "We were raising sheep at the time.  It was no great conservation thought.  We needed grazing land for the sheep, we had a flock and they needed food."

We went up to the bowl with Baylor, Susanne Hickey from The Nature Conservancy, and David Carter with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for Mills County.

It started raining when we got there, so we talked on the porch instead. 

Jim Baylor:  In that bowl there are a  hundred and eighty-seven, by somebody else’s count not mine, a hundred and eighty-seven different species of grasses and forbs.  It’s all mother nature’s bringing back what she had there before.

They bulldozed the trees out and instead of planting grasses, just left the land alone.

 

The prairie came back.

But the trees also kept trying to come back.   So the Baylors had to help Mother Nature along.     

The USDA provided some financial support.  Interns from The Nature Conservancy helped with clearing.  And there’ve been some controlled burns over the years.

Jim Baylor:  "Would we have done it on our own?  No, we couldn’t have hired the help that The Nature Conservancy provided." 

The question is: why does maintaining prairies in the Hills matter, especially, if trees move in naturally without fire, whether started by humans or lightning?

Susanne Hickey, The Nature Conservancy: "I think for the nature conservancy and for a lot of people out here we are very interested in the prairie because there's so many species, butterflies, birds, that need that prairie habitat, and they're fast declining.  ... If we let the trees grow those species will disappear from Iowa.

David Carter, USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service: "I think it's one tenth of one percent prairie left in Iowa and we have, in the Loess Hills, we have the largest you know tracts of prairie left in Iowa and you know we have the species here.  We don't have to do a reconstruction which is never as diverse as what Mr. Baylor has."

In short, the Hills are not just a geological formation, they are an ecological system.  Nobody knows at what point a system is threatened as diversity diminishes.

While trees try to take over in some places, in recent years more houses have also been sprouting in the Hills.   

The problem with that is, given the soil’s composition, the Loess Hills are particularly susceptible to erosion.  When people tear the cover off the land, carve into the bluffs to build homes, or make impermeable roadways that increase run-off, it just makes the land that much more vulnerable.

If one is going to build here, it’s best to build carefully.  Which is what’s being done in the Woodfield development, just north of Glenwood.  Rich Maaske, an urban conservationist with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, worked with Ed Cambridge, manager and builder.

Rich Maaske, Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship: "What Ed has done is he's mimiced the natural hydrology of what used to be in the hills centuries ago, and you see that in every practice that's out there.  Some are so subtle you don't even realize them."

For example, there are no curbs, no gutters, and no storm sewers.  A wide swale allows water to soak in and if there’s too much water, directs it so it eventually runs through structures filled with compost and seed called filtrex socks.  As the water runs through the tubes it usually spreads out and does not cut into the soil.  The seeds produce plants which help hold water too.

And there’s more.

Ed Cambridge, Woodfield: "We're standing on a rock infiltration trench.  This is about 8 foot wide, 8 foot deep, and 50 foot long, and it's totally full of clean crushed rock and when we get a heavy run off and rain fall the water comes down across those filtrex tubes and then it reaches this and it goes into the ground.  So, it acts like a reservoir and allows the water to percolate into the ground.

Rich Maaske, Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship:  "And any excess runoff, which there really hardly isn't, any runs down the hill there and it and it runs into three sediment water control basins."

There are native grasses and flowers with deep root structures that help hold the soil.

Trails that run through the common property are pervious: screened, crushed rock in a geo-webbing so the water soaks in rather than runs off.

The vegetation and terraces remain on the land until new construction begins.

This is a demonstration project which received financial help from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.  But Cambridge says it is cost effective.

Ed Cambridge, Woodfield: "In the long run it’s probably less expensive because there’s less maintainance and it’s, it’s easier to take care of.

It’s a win win scenario for the humans and the Hills.

Still, the Hills aren’t just where people live and work.   They’re also a tourist destination, attracting more and more visitors.

Running adjacent to and over the Loess Hills are highways that have been designated a National, and State, Scenic Byway. And there are places all over the Hills for any interests. 

This is the 1000 acre Hitchcock Nature Center near Honey Creek.

Once a YMCA camp, the county took it over a while ago and turned the lodge into an interpretive center.

On the way to becoming a showcase of good ecological practices, the Center ran into a problem with it’s roads and parking areas.  The asphalt was increasing run-off and erosion.  Now they’re trying something else as a demonstration – permeable paving.

Mark Shoemaker, Executive Director, Pottawattamie County Conservation:  "And what these pavers do is it helps the water actually drain through the cracks and the porous apsects of the pavers and instead of running off it filters down into the ground and eventually into the ground, ground water.

Clearly, protecting the Hills isn’t easy, even for the people and institutions who are here to do just that.  There is always more to learn about how to live in and with the natural world.

 

Additional Images:  Golden Hills Resource Conservation & Development; Mills County Historical Museum; Glenwood American Indian Earth Lodge Society; Dawn Storm

 

 

 

 

Tags: Iowa national parks nature parks preservation