By Julie Ann Madden
Conversion of prairie to cropland has had a greater impact on Iowa’s landscape than any other factor in the last 200 years, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation’s Loess Hills Conservation Specialist Tim Sproul told a crowd at the May Loess Hills Audubon Society meeting on May 2 at the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center.
“Iowa is in the top five of most altered states in the United States,” he said, explaining 15 billion tons of soil eroded from Iowa’s landscape in just the 1900s — 150 years ago, 75 to 85 percent of Iowa land was covered in prairie.
“Iowa had 30 million acres of prairie,” said Sproul. “Today, one-tenth of 1 percent is all that’s left of the prairie that once covered Iowa. Much of that one-tenth is in the Loess Hills, and the Loess Hills is more than scenic ridges and prairie flowers. It’s a national treasure.”
“Iowa’s largest commodity and industry is agriculture,” he said. “But that doesn’t speak to Iowa’s diversity.”
Iowa lost its bison, elk and prairie chickens, said Sproul, and many other species such as the mountain lion and otter have been adversely affected but not totally eliminated.
“From 1879 to 1950, just 80 years, some 25 million acres were converted to cropland,” he said.
The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation “envisions habitat for wildlife, clean water, places to play, scenic beauty and quality of life,” said Sproul. “Our mission is simple: to protect Iowa’s land, water and wildlife.”
They work on that mission through five areas:
• Protection: Land is protected through conservation easements and/or purchasing land parcels.
Since the foundation’s inception in 1979, there have been 132,000 acres permanently protected in 95 counties across the state.
In 2012, the foundation completed 72 projects of land acquisition or conservation easements in Special Landscape Areas such as the Loess Hills.
In Plymouth County, the Spirit Knoll – Burcham Project was completed. Spirit Knoll’s 168 acres were purchased from a developer who had planned to create a unique residential community until Native American burial grounds were found and the Recession hit. Burcham’s 54 acres connects to the northeast corner of Spirit Knoll and was also purchased by the Foundation.
Sproul explained the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) has designated properties it wants to buy across the state, and when landowners are willing, the Foundation purchases the properties and/or gets conservation easements on the properties. After holding the properties for five years while the IDNR or county conservation boards assimilate the funds to pay for the lands or easement agreements, the properties are transferred to those entities.
Although some land purchases in the past removed the properties from the tax roles, “virtually all IDNR purchases now include REAP funding which requires the state to continue paying the property taxes,” said Sproul.
Western Iowa projects completed in 2012 covered 1,100 acres where the land was valued at $1.73 million, of which $600,000 was donated through conservation easements and bargain sale purchases and the Foundation expended $1.1 million that will mostly be paid back by IDNR or county conservation boards when they take ownership, he said.
• Land Restoration: Returning lands to their pre-settlement state.
Much of our focus is on threatened environment or threatened species: prairies, grasslands, woodlands, wetlands and flood plains, said Sproul.
• Public Benefit: Properties the foundation purchases are eventually turned over to ownership of the IDNR or county conservation boards for public use.
The public benefit is that natural areas bring in $3 million to Iowa’s economy every year.
• Public Policy: The foundation lobbies for good, positive conservation policies.
One lobbyist has mapped the conversion of grassland to cropland from 1995 – 2011, which shows Plymouth, Woodbury and Monona counties have had the greatest amount of grassland converted to cropland in Iowa.
• Engagement: The foundation provides programs and speakers at events to promote their mission.
The foundation has 6,000 members which buy a $30 membership and/or donate more. Memberships typically raise $500,000 in unrestricted funds, and these memberships generate another $500,000 in unrestricted donations. Special giving campaigns such as the Spirit Knoll Campaign raise an additional $1 million. The foundation also received $600,000 in legacy bequest from seven devoted Iowans in 2012, giving the foundation a total of $2.6 million. This allowed the foundation to work with landowners who gave land valued at $1.7 million and public agencies who gave $10 million for partnership (land purchase) projects.
“Every dollar helps,” said Sproul. “Every piece is important, and there is no piece too small.”
In the 1800s, Iowa was a “land rich with milk and honey — with much game, much promise,” he said, sharing a list of wildlife lost from the Iowa landscape according to James J. Dinsmore’s book: A Country So Full of Game: The Story of Wildlife in Iowa. “Fast forward 200 years and yet, we still have some record (wildlife) populations but we, as a society, have much to do and much effort to put forth to save the wild places and the wild beings for all of us, for our enjoyment, but obviously, for those yet to come.”
“That’s the mission of the foundation,” said Sproul, encouraging people to become members, participate in their events and/or become an advocate for the environment in the natural world.