Prairie Islands By the banks of the Missouri River, Pleistocene winds
sculpted a landscape unmatched in America. by Sam Hooper Samuels
(page 2 of 2)
PROTECTING THE LOESS HILLS, and Iowa generally, presents special challenges. By many standards, Iowa is already the most altered state in the union, with more road surface per square mile than any other state. Most of the hills are in private hands, a dense mosaic of residential and agricultural ownership.
Few outside of Iowa have even heard of the Loess Hills. Even many Iowans don't know about them. Until recently, there were farmers who lived their whole lives in the Loess Hills and never heard the name.
The best hope for the Loess Hills is to work with the people who live there, to encourage a heightened appreciation of prairie, and to help them conserve their own land. A herd of cows managed the conventional way can suck the nutrients out of a prairie pasture and leave behind bare earth torn up by hooves. Some innovative cattlemen are experimenting with smaller herds, rotating them to fresh pastures frequently to imitate a roving herd of bison.
In 2001, the National Park Service sponsored a study of the Loess Hills. It was a ray of hope, a shot at a national park or at least some kind of federal protected status. The study called the hills a resource of national significance that would make "a suitable addition to the National Park System." But it concluded that the problem of multiple owners made a park impractical.
Instead, the agency recommended the formation of a broad-based local organization. This group, which came to be known as the Loess Hills Alliance, was to create a comprehensive land-management plan that would allow people to make a living on the land without destroying prairie. Eventually, an act of Congress could create a national reserve, offering some of the protections of a national park, but on private land.
The state chipped in some money for a salaried director, and for a while the Loess Hills Alliance looked to become a power. Then Iowa, like many states, hit hard times and cut off the alliance's funding. The organization now plods along with a volunteer director and limited influence and support.
In Coralville, 200 miles east, plans are under way for the Iowa Environmental Project, an ecological Disneyland under a gigantic clear bubble with a 4.5-acre indoor tropical rainforest and a million-gallon aquarium. Iowa senator Chuck Grassley (R) championed the boondoggle and helped lasso 50 million federal dollars to build it. That sum might have kept the Loess Hills Alliance staffed for a couple hundred years, preserving the actual Iowa environment.
LOVERS OF PRAIRIE look with envy
to the north Loess Hills, where woody invaders have made the least progress. At the northern terminus of the landform is Broken Kettle Grassland, a 7,000-acre expanse nearly unbroken by trees. It's owned by the Nature Conservancy, which recently named the Loess Hills one of its "Last Great Places." Scott Moats is the naturalist in charge.
The musical Oklahoma! has a song that begins, "The farmer and the cowman should be friends." In Iowa, add the conservationist. Moats has been all three, which well qualifies him to manage prairie and to teach others to do the same. Big and solidly built, Moats is part farm boy, part environmental policy wonk, as comfortable fixing fences or mowing firebreaks as he is discussing the finer points of invasive nitrophiles or making a passionate case for the economic and ecological benefits of herd rotation.
His father can remember farming with draft horses and the day electricity came to their farm. Moats lives right on Broken Kettle, just a few steps from a well-documented prairie rattlesnake hibernaculum, a fact that gives me pause when I watch his daughter toddling around the swings and toy horsies outside the house.
"When I first moved out here, everybody thought the Nature Conservancy was a fern-feeling, tree-hugging, granola-flake organization," Moats says. "I think we're a lot closer now, with the environmentalists and the agriculturists meeting in the middle. Our objectives may not be the same, but the end result will be."
Fire here, like the blazes down at Stone State Park, is crucial. As we ride through Broken Kettle in his pickup, Moats examines every hillside, evaluating the success of his last fire.
"Here's a response from a spring fire," Moats says, pointing out an expanse of big bluestem about as tall as he is. Before the fire, the area had become overgrown with non-natives like sweet clover and buckthorn, a European tree that's particularly hard to eradicate.
As the prairie plants thrive again at Broken Kettle, neighbors take notice and catch on to conservation. Elsewhere, prescribed prairie fires often meet with public resistance because of smoke and the perceived danger. Around Broken Kettle, the neighbors accept and even welcome fires.
"That house that sits up on top of Butcher Road, we use their lawn as a firebreak," Moats says. "They usually sit out on lawn chairs, drink beer, and watch the fire go by."
Moats has converted some neighboring farmers from skeptics to conservationists. They've seen excellent forage grow after a fire, seen calves get fat on native vegetation and take prizes at auction. Some now come to Moats for advice on managing their prairies.
Even at 7,000 acres, Broken Kettle is a fragment. Moats is acutely aware that outside this privileged zone, preserving the Loess Hills is a race against time. "It'd be kind of interesting to see how much time we have left — if somebody would model out exactly how many years we have left," Moats says. "I'd guess it'd be 15."
On the other hand, a lot can happen in the next 15 years. The past 15 have witnessed a blossoming awareness of the beauty and ecological importance of the hills. The Loess Hills Hospitality Association has brought in thousands of tourists. A designated national scenic byway runs the entire length of the hills.
The Loess Hills Prairie Seminar attracts 250 to 300 participants each June for a weekend of hiking and learning. Despite its funding woes, the Loess Hills Alliance continues to meet, with representation from seven counties in the landform. The Sierra Club's Jim Redmond is lobbying to reinvigorate the alliance to enable it to prepare the management plan necessary for the creation of a Loess Hills National Reserve.
Prairie has a way of surprising us with its resilience. When Moats was a boy, his father handed him a package of prairie seeds, which he accidentally dropped in a pile on the ground. Native prairie seeds are expensive; some retailers sell the rarer varieties for as much as $1,200 per pound. It was a tense moment for father and son, Moats recalls. "His reaction was, 'What'd you just do? You know how precious those seeds are?'" All that money, all those good intentions wasted.
"Then suddenly, 13 years later, boom," Moats says. "Whatever condition they needed, it happened and they grew."
Sam Hooper Samuels lives in Vermont, and teaches in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. He has written for Smithsonian, the New York Times, and Discover.