Prairie land 11,000 years in the making
The Nature Conservancy had hoped to raise $9.5 million to save endangered natural areas of Iowa.
Instead, the nonprofit group nearly doubled its goal and raised $18.1 million to preserve six key areas of the state - including the Little Sioux River Valley of northwest Iowa, which runs through the northern edge of Buena Vista County.
The conservancy has named the Little Sioux area as one of the "most ecologically important and threatened landscapes" in Iowa, and it represents one of the six best remaining opportunities for large landscape conservation in Iowa, its officials said this week.
The Conservancy aims to eventually obtain, restore and preserve up to 20,000 additional acres of land in the valley.
The organization, founded by ecologists, formed an Iowa branch in 1963 to work on preserving natural land and waterways, plants and animals in the state. The current campaign is a first of its kind for the group, which says is can preserve more than 3,700 acres with the money it has raised.
The campaign, called "Saving the Last Great Places in Iowa," also targets the unique Loess Hills in western Iowa.
The organization will buy land and easements and accept donations of property. Some of the land will be turned over to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and other agencies. The conservancy will retain some of the property.
Bison will be returned to some areas, such as the Broken Kettle Grasslands project near Sioux City and some of the Loess Hills region. More than 1,000 donors contributed funds.
Max Clausen, 92, donated his family's $5.4 million, 240-acre spread with 2,700 feet of undeveloped shoreline on Clear Lake.
The land has been in his family since 1891 and he wanted to preserve it because "I saw what they've done to the rest of Clear Lake."
His family bought the land before it became popular Iowa vacation spot.
Bob Riley, the group's board president, said the conservancy's science-based approached worked well.
"People in Iowa, I think, get it," he said. "To have that much success on our first shot out of the bag I think was pretty phenomenal."
The group has explored the Kindelspire Park area, a gracially-carved primitive preserve region rich in river bluffs and trails, but has not yet announced any specifics for projects in and around Buena Vista County.
The Little Sioux River winds its way through sand and gravel deposits left behind by glaciers 11,000 years ago, eventually making its way to the Missouri River. Prairie, river and wetland systems make up this area, which once was covered by tallgrass prairie. Native prairie remnants still exist and include prairie pothole wetlands, calcareous fens on limestone soils, dry hill prairies and oak woodlands.
Grazing and haying have helped maintain significant prairie tracts.
In the 1940s, botanist Dr. Ada Hayden identified the area as having some of the best native prairie left in the state and much of it still exists, Nature Conservancy leaders said.
Several globally rare species can be found in the Little Sioux Valley, including the federally-threatened bush clover and eastern prairie fringed orchid. Prairie grasses and wildflowers abound, along with rare butterflies and grassland birds such as the dickcissels and yellow warbler.
The Loess Hills are home to rare prairie rattlesnakes and grassland birds such as bobolinks.
Overly intensive grazing and harmful non-native species have been a threat to the natural resources, they say.
The Conservancy has helped protect 2,700 acres in the Little Sioux Valley to date, much of it in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Waterman Prairie Project. Conservancy preserves in the area include the 110-acre Freda Haffner Preserve, southwest of Okaboji. The preserve consists of wet and dry prairies and sedge meadows. It also is one of Iowa's largest glacial "kettleholes," which were formed by large blocks of ice that remained after the glaciers retreated. Another Conservancy preserve is Mori Prairie in Clay County, a biological and geological state preserve, designated as an excellent example of Iowa blacksoil prairie.
The Conservancy's long-term goal for the Little Sioux Valley is to work with partners to conserve and restore 15,000 additional acres in the area.
Once almost entirely covered in tallgrass prairie, Iowa is arguably the most altered state in America. More than 99 percent of the original-condition land environment is gone.