A 223-acre plot of land owned by Union County and currently leased out as farm ground could become a nature preserve, public recreation area and conservation tool according to the plans set out by Union County Conservation Director Doug Jones during the Union County Board of Supervisors meeting Monday.
The county conservation department workers —Jones, Joe Mayhew and Mike Hilger — with the support of the Union County Conservation Board, envision a park where native Iowa prairie grasses and forbs (non-woody flowering plants) are allowed to flourish, examples of conservation and erosion control techniques are on display for educating land owners, and members of the public can hike, hunt, and learn about and enjoy nature.
“We would love the opportunity to manage it ... to give it to the people of Union County, other counties and other states. Open it up to everybody,” Jones said.
He also spoke of the possible tourism dollars such a project could bring in, saying it could bring in day users, campers, hunters and fishermen.
“I’m excited about it,” Tom Lesan chair of the Union County Conservation Board said. “I might not ever see that back 40 ... but there was a day that would have been the first place I’d have gone.”
The land adjacent to Highway 34 east of Prairie Solid Waste transfer station was originally planned to be used for more landfill space and to harvest the dirt needed to cover the landfill. With changing legislation and the costs involved in maintaining a landfill, Union County now sends its trash out of the county via the transfer station on the property.
The park project would not include the current landfill or the ground where the transfer station is housed. Jones said some places have turned their landfill areas over to their conservation departments, so more area may be included in the future.
The costs to set up the park will be minimal, Jones said. He estimates a start-up cost of around $10,000 for a parking lot and signage. The labor involved would come from the conservation department and volunteers. Jones and his department would use reclaimed wood, local sources, and signs created by the Iowa Prison Industries.
Jones and the conservation board will seek out grants and donations to provide any needed funding.
Setting up and maintaining the grassy areas, mowing the perimeter to serve as a fire break and trail, thinning trees and feathering the tree lines to discourage spread, and maintaining the fence lines are jobs that are already in line with the duties of the conservation department, Jones said.
Organizations such as the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, FFA, 4-H clubs, a local birding group and others would be invited to participate in setting up the park by crafting and erecting bird houses, helping with signage and other projects.
The banks along portions of 12-Mile Creek are being eroded by cattle grazing in the area. In order to stop the erosion while allowing the land to be rented, a fence would need to be put up to keep the cattle out of the creek. The $13,000 per year brought in to the county from leasing the land would be more than offset by the cost of such a fence.
If the land becomes a park, no fencing would be needed along the creek and it would begin to heal itself naturally, Jones said.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources released a statement in 2020 saying that the overwintering Monarch butterflies in Mexico were half the numbers of the preceding year. It recommends Iowans provide habitat for the Monarchs that spend the summer here by planting native pollinator-friendly plants.
The proposed park will include areas of these plants, including some types of milkweed, that are attractive to butterflies. Jones has identified a source for free seeds from Seed A Legacy Pollinator Habitat Program to help accomplish this.
Jones said preparing the land by burning off the current vegetation in some areas and allowing the seed that is lying dormant to come back to life will likely result in the native plants returning on their own, however, if needed, areas can be seeded with the appropriate types of grasses and forbs.
“Believe it or not seed from 200 years ago is still be there and may be viable,” Jones said.
Walking trails along the perimeter of the park are planned as 10-foot wide mowed paths. Jones said he does not plan to pave or rock these trails. They will remain natural. The trails will do double duty as fire breaks, which Jones said are essential for managing controlled burns.
Signage along the trails could highlight seeding projects and erosion control measures, point out native species of grasses and animals, and explain the historical and prehistorical significance of the area. Eventually, more educational signage and structures could be placed as an interpretive trail.
Leaving the cedar tree section of the land intact will provide space for native animal species such as pheasant, turkey, rabbits, squirrels and deer to nest and grow. Limiting the expansion of the cedar tree grove by removing seedlings at the edges would keep the tree species from taking over the entire area.
Hardwood trees in the area would provide similar habitats and hunting areas. Jones said some of the hardwood trees could be harvested to create room for growth in the remaining trees and could provide a small revenue to help with the project. He said this would not look like a logging area. Any trees harvested would be selected by experts using best practice conservation guidelines.
Supervisor Ron Riley questioned the safety of allowing hunting and hiking on the same property.
Lesan responded that the hunting seasons are limited and the timing is generally different than those who would use the area for other sorts of recreation.
“I’m not going to say there might not be some conflict somewhere, but ... it’s not newsworthy. ... People coexist,” Jones said.
Lesan added that many areas of the county already have both types of outdoor recreation. He said he does not see it becoming a problem, but if it does it can be managed. He pointed out those using the dove food plots and paved trails near Mitchell Marsh managed to get along.
“If we say that’s not going to be a hunting area, there’s a potential to alienate a large portion of the population that would frequent that area and really enjoy it,” Jones said.
The supervisors informally expressed their approval of the project, but no construction can begin until the lease on the land expires in February 2021.
In the meantime, the supervisors will work with the county attorney to address any legal issues involved in transferring the property to the conservation department.
Jones said the project would not be done “overnight.” It would be done in steps as grants became available. A parking lot and a footbridge over the creek would likely be the first projects completed.
The Union County Board of Supervisors meets weekly 9 a.m. Monday at the Union County Courthouse, 300 N. Pine St. The supervisors are still meeting in person at this time, but the public is encouraged to submit comments for public forum by mail, email or telephone to help limit the gathering to 10 participants.