adapted from Iowa’s Natural Heritage, Spring 2016
A textbook example of partnerships among private landowners, conservation organizations, and government agencies has protected an UN-ordinary natural area in an extraordinary corner of Iowa.
More than 3,000 acres of wild lands – centered on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ 680-acre Iverson Bottoms Wildlife Area – sprawl across the meandering Upper Iowa River Valley in Allamakee and Winneshiek Counties. The complex represents a decades-long effort by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, the Iowa DNR, and conservation-minded landowners.
Goat prairies, limestone ridges, mature woodlands, and river bottoms contain diverse wildlife and plant communities. Indian mounds denote earlier peoples’ connections to the region. Canoeists, hunters, bird watchers, and botanists find areas as wilderness-like as anything in Iowa.
IDNR wildlife biologist Terry Haindfield calls it “the best country in the whole wide world.”
“The core is something special for wildlife,” he said. Expanses of forest, with farm fields, hill prairies, and the Upper Iowa River corridor, shelter deer, turkeys, ruffed grouse, and songbirds. Wintering deer seek the secluded blufflands. Reclusive bald and golden eagles, rattlesnakes, river otters, and bobcats find refuge in the rugged Upper Iowa valley.
The unique area requires complex management, Haindfield said. The stewardship plan protects large woodlands for forest interior bird species, while occasionally using clear-cuts to create habitat for grouse and songbirds that need more brush.
Timely harvest of mature oak stands, before maple and basswood take hold, will ensure future mast-rich oak-hickory forests for squirrels, deer, and turkeys. Controlled fire on prairie remnants will stimulate grasses and forbs that have been suppressed by encroaching cedar trees, Haindfield said. Land managers also must maintain pleasing viewsheds, avoid damage to steep slopes, and protect Native American mounds and other archaeological resources.
Brian Fankhauser, blufflands director for INHF, said safeguarding the land builds good relationships. “Sometimes what it takes is to own something . . . and actively manage it,” Fankhauser said. “Then the neighbors say, “these guys care!’” he said. “I think that opens doors.”
The project required many partners. The state acquired the first 338 acres in 1981, using funds from federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear, along with Iowa “Open Spaces” money.
INHF added a key tract with the purchase of the 1,224-acre Heritage Valley from the estate of Forrest Ryan in 2007. Although not contiguous to Iverson Bottoms, Heritage Valley is just upstream along the Upper Iowa River. The DNR’s 495-acre Canoe Creek Wildlife Area is only a mile or two farther upstream. And the 694-acre Pine Creek Wildlife Area connects with Heritage Valley.
More recently, INHF and IDNR cooperated on four additions that doubled the size of the original Iverson Bottoms area. Using donations from supporters, INHF negotiated land deals that might have been difficult for a state agency constrained by timetables and budgets.
For example, INHF acquired 22 acres at Iverson Bottoms by trading the owner an 18-acre tract in another part of the county. The trading partner donated conservation easements on that 18-acres and another 58 acres.
Iowa’s Resources Enhancement and Protection (REAP) funds cost-shared two other parcels.
IDNR also used $387,500 from the Protected Water Area (PWA) allocation of REAP, said Todd Bishop, special projects coordinator for the IDNR’s wildlife bureau. He and Nate Hoogeveen, director of river programs for IDNR, put that money toward buying the 212-acre Ryan-Mahoney tract from INHF.
Pat Ryan, son of the late Forrest Ryan, worked with INHF to protect the site, which includes 1.5 miles of Upper Iowa riverfront and half a mile of Pine Creek. His father was passionate about preserving the area – especially the Indian mounds on a bench above the floodplain, Ryan said.
That mound group may be the most prominent Native American site in the region – but certainly not the only one, said Colin Betts, professor of anthropology at Luther College in Decorah.
The Upper Iowa Valley has “a really rich archaeological legacy,” Betts said. “There is no doubt that it represented an important location for people going back thousands of years.”
Although IDNR now owns most of the Iverson Bottoms Wildlife Area, INHF will retain 29-acre Solitaire Ridge, which it acquired in 2010. Fankhauser said it’s one of the largest hill prairies in northeast Iowa. Birders go there in winter to find Townsend’s solitaires – birds that normally live in the west. Golden eagles also winter there.
With unusual wildlife and plant communities, scenic vistas, high-quality streams, archeological treasures, and corridors connecting public and private conservation areas, the Iverson Bottoms area – and the surrounding Upper Iowa blufflands – showcase Iowa’s natural and cultural heritage at its best.