On Thursday, September 3, wildland firefighters from six conservation organizations conducted a prescribed burn at Murray Hill Scenic Overlook and Loess Hills State Forest in Harrison County. Many people have gotten used to seeing spring and fall burns, but early September has not been a common time to burn. Due to the severe drought in western Iowa, fuels are especially dry this year and burned exceptionally.
Local agencies have started conducting more late summer (growing season) burns to see how the results compare to fires at other times of year. There is evidence that fire may have historically been prevalent at this time of year due to lack 0f rainfall and prevailing dry, southwesterly winds in late summer. The primary goal of growing season burning is to set back woody vegetation (trees and shrubs) that can invade and take over the remnant prairies.
Loess Hills prairies evolved over thousands of years with regular fire regimes. Some were started by lightning, and more were started by indigenous peoples to improve habitat for hunting and food production. Fires likely swept through the Loess Hills once every few years, possibly even annually. After European colonization, fires largely ceased and trees encroached onto the grasslands. Fire may have been used as a management tool for as long as people have lived in the Loess Hills, but conservation groups have only realized its importance within the past few decades.
To start the day, the crew met and reviewed the plan for the day. The main unit included Murray Hill Scenic Overlook on the north side, bounded by Easton Trail (county blacktop road), following a ridgeline to the southeast and including a portion of the adjacent Loess Hills State Forest to the south. Brent's Trail, a popular new hiking trail, runs through this unit.
Firebreaks were cleared a day before the burn to provide clear boundaries within which the fire would be contained. Firebreaks can include mowed paths, roads, waterways, or other barriers that will not readily burn.
Firefighters broke into four divisions for different tasks. Fires were ignited from different sides to burn into each other. Firefighters watched the lines to ensure fire stayed within the burn unit. The unit included prairies, woodlands, and pasture with different fuel types and topography, each with their own unique fire behavior.
After the Murray Hill fire was completed, the group burned a four-acre unit that was recently acquired by Harrison County Conservation Board immediately west of Murray Hill. This steep area included hillside covered with eastern red cedar trees, which can become problematic and invasive when not kept in check with fire and grazing animals. The cedars tend to crowd out other native prairie species and create a coniferous monoculture.
Since the trees were so dry, many torched rapidly leaving only charred trunks and branches. These cedars will not grow back, and the prairie seed bank in the soil will flourish with the sunlight that is once again able to reach the ground.
The photos below show the landscape one day after the burn. Most of the prairie grasses and flowers are gone, but since the prairies evolved with fire, the hillsides will quickly turn green next spring. Some plants will even reemerge within the next week or so. Local land managers are hopeful that this fire will help restore a thriving, healthy prairie ecosystem that has not seen a growing-season burn in many decades.
For more information about prescribed fire. visit the links below.
Golden Hills was fortunate to receive a grant from Pottawattamie County Community Foundation to hire Brett Kuxhausen to create videos about Pottawattamie County's great outdoors. The videos feature parks and wildlife areas in Pottawattamie County outside of Council Bluffs and the Loess Hills as part of WanderLoess, the marketing program for the Loess Hills Missouri River Region.
Areas featured in the videos include Arrowhead County Park near Neola, Botna Bend Park in Hancock, Edgington City Park in Avoca, the West Nishnabotna River Water Trail, and Farm Creek and Wheeler Grove wildlife areas near Carson and Macedonia. One video highlights flora and fauna of the prairies, and the other video showcases hiking, biking, paddling, fishing and other outdoor recreation activities. Watch the videos below or on our YouTube channel.
Late summer is an excellent time to take a drive and look at wildflowers. Western Skies Scenic Byway is a great place to do that.
The Byway corridor has several remnant prairies from the Loess Hills in the west to the Raccoon River valley in the east.
Additionally, several non-native flowers are currently blooming along many of the roadsides. A few of the most common ones you will likely see are chicory (chichorium intybus), Queen Anne's Lace (daucus carota), and birdsfoot trefoil (lotus corniculatus) all pictured below.
A few native prairie species do well along roadsides, such as common milkweed and partridge pea.
Some sections of roads have much more diverse roadside plantings, often part of a county's Roadside Vegetation Management program. These photos are along Highway 25 on the north side of Guthrie Center, next to an outdoor classroom.
While county and state road right-of-ways are public, use caution if you decide to explore a roadside prairie. Pull off out of the way of traffic, turn on hazard lights, and wear brightly colored clothing or a safety vest. Wear long pants and closed shoes to avoid things like poison ivy and wild parsnip. Bug spray is also recommended and check for ticks after visiting a prairie!
Check out the Iowa DOT Plant Profiler for identifying more common roadside plants.
For a humorous take, read the Prairie Ecologist's A Field Guide to Roadside Wildflowers at Full Speed.
In addition to roadsides, the Byway has several remnant prairies with much more species diversity. One of the smallest is Bundt Prairie in Guthrie County.
In late July and early August, blazing stars are blooming. Prairie blazing star (liatris pycnostachya) is generally taller with single purple spikes and scaly blazing star (liatris squarrosa) is shorter with multiple flowers per stem.
Culver's root (veronicastrum virginicum) has white flowers. Wild bergamot/bee balm (monarda fistulosa) has pink blooms. Gray-headed coneflower (ratibida pinnata) has yellow petals with dark centers.
Sheeder Prairie State Preserve is another remnant prairie in Guthrie County. In addition to the flowers at Bundt Prairie, compass plant (silphium laciniatum) is one of the tallest flowers on the prairie.
Dinesen Prairie State Preserve in Shelby County, like Sheeder Prairie, was never plowed and is permanently protected by the state. Prairie blazing star is abundant here. Another interesting plant is white wild indigo (baptisia alba), whose white flowers are nearing their blooming period but the stalks now have pods that resemble beans.
The Loess Hills State Forest, Willow Lake Recreation Area, and Old Town Conservation Area have Loess Hills remnant prairies in Harrison County.
Some prairies are located on private land and should not be accessed without the landowner's permission. Many of these prairies are farms enrolled in the conservation reserve program (CRP). Although you should not attempt to explore them without permission, many can be seen and admired from the roadway.
What have you seen blooming lately? What's your favorite prairie to visit?
Light pollution, also called skyglow, results from artificial lighting from streetlights, homes, businesses, and more. Light pollution has many negative impacts that people tend to not notice. It can affect people's sleep, contributing to many health problems. It also impacts plant life cycles, bird migration, and contributes to global declines in insect populations. Almost 80% of Americans cannot see the Milky Way from their home and about 99% have some level of skyglow.
Light pollution is measured on the Bortle Scale, with 1 being an excellent dark sky without any skyglow and 9 being so bright that most or not all stars are not visible.
The International Dark Sky Association, an organization dedicated to preserving the night sky, has great information and resources on their website about light pollution and the importance of darkness.
Although it's difficult to completely avoid all light pollution, Western Skies Scenic Byway includes several great stargazing sites. The map below shows light pollution along the Byway. The purple line is the Byway route. The white, red, and orange are the worst light pollution, which are generally in the center of the largest cities. Omaha-Council Bluffs and Des Moines-West Des Moines metros to the east and west ends of Western Skies are generally about 5-9 on the Bortle Scale. Many rural communities and highway corridors are green, and roughly 4 on the Bortle scale. Only the areas farthest from any towns are a 3 or possibly in some cases 2, indicating the best skies for stargazing. Still, the areas ranking 2-3 are much better for stargazing than the metro areas and even the center of small towns.
As you can see on the map, the darkest area on Western Skies is in western Guthrie and eastern Audubon counties. This area includes Whiterock Conservancy, which features a star field campground and hosts an annual Iowa Star Party (the 2020 Star Party is cancelled due to COVID-19). Littlefield Recreation Area is also located here. Manteno Park and Prairie Rose State Park in Shelby County and Loess Hills State Forest in Harrison County are also some among the darkest areas on the Byway corridor.
Once you find a dark sky, you can use several different apps to help identify constellations and stars.
A few helpful links for stargazing:
Click the map below for an interactive map of light pollution around the world.
Learn about what's happening along Western Skies!
Click here to download a pdf.
Head to the great outdoors this weekend and hike through a prairie or go fishing!
Saturday, June 6 is National Prairie Day. The mission of National Prairie Day is to:
In western Iowa, specifically the Loess Hills, we are fortunate to have many public prairies. Golden Hills is involved with several prairie projects, including our Prairie Seed Harvest and Growing Native Plants initiatives. We also have information about prairies to visit in western Iowa. The Iowa Prairie Network website also has many great resources about prairies, including a list of public prairies throughout the state.
June 5-7 is also Free Fishing Weekend in Iowa. Iowa residents can try fishing without buying a license on June 5, 6 and 7 as part of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) free fishing weekend. All other regulations remain in place.
The WanderLoess website, coordinated by Golden Hills, includes a map of places to fish in Harrison, Mills, and Pottawattamie Counties. The DNR has a full listing of public fishing spots in Iowa on their website.
Although it's often easy to not think about it, water is one of the most important parts of our everyday lives. From recreation to cleaning to drinking to growing and cooking food, water is all around us all the time. Our quality of life can suffer when we have too much (flooding), not enough (drought), or low-quality water (in our surface waters or our wells).
Golden Hills is introducing Nishy the Loch Nish Monster to help people get to know the Nishnabotna Watershed, and educate about how our local water bodies and sourcewater can be impacted by water quantity and quality issues. Nishy the five-foot floaty will visit sites throughout the watershed and share information about challenges and solutions for improving water quality, reducing flooding impacts, and improving river recreation in the region.
Golden Hills coordinates the East and West Nishnabotna Watershed Managment Coalition which aims to reduce flooding and improve water quality throughout the watershed. Follow the watershed coalition on Facebook.
We have also been involved with the West Nishnabotna Water Trail in Pottawattamie County since it began in 2010. We are currently partnering with Shelby County Conservation and Iowa DNR to determine feasibility of extending the water trail designation north into Shelby County. Follow the water trail on Facebook.
Learn more about all of Golden Hills' land and water conservation projects at http://www.goldenhillsrcd.org/conservation.html and follow Golden Hills on Facebook and Instagram.
Stay tuned for Nishy updates!
More than 99.9% of Iowa's native prairies have been been removed from the land. Of the remaining <0.1%, more than half is located in the steep Loess Hills landform of western Iowa. Prairies evolved over thousands of years with regular fire regimes set by native peoples and lightning. Large ungulates like bison also roamed the prairies, grazing grasses and forbs. Since European settlement in the 19th century, the fires and grazers have largely been eliminated from the landscape. In recent years, fire has seen a resurgence as an important tool for prairie, savanna, and woodland restoration and management.
Partners from Iowa Department of Natural Resources and local county conservation boards joined to help burn hundreds of acres of public and private lands in Monona County on April 30, 2020.
The annual Loess Hills Cooperative Burn Week had been scheduled for this week but was postponed due to COVID-19. Burn Week partners are still making the best of available resources, and conservation agencies regularly collaborate to assist with burns on both public and private lands throughout the Loess Hills.
After an overview of the plan for the day and weather conditions that morning, three squads separated to their respective units. Firefighters used drip torches to light areas within the fireline, including both woodlands and grasslands. Roads, water bodies, and mowed paths are often used for firebreaks to contain the fire.
Without fire and grazing, eastern red cedar (juniperus virginiana) can take over and crowd out other species. Although these cedars are a native species, they rapidly become invasive without proper management.
Cool-season grasses like brome that were planted as pasture for livestock can also take over native prairies.. Brome does not have the same habitat value as a diverse remnant prairie. Cool-season grasses green up earlier than warm-season grasses. Burning in spring can set back the cool-season grasses that have started to green up, and help natives recolonize an area.
Perennial native vegetation is fire adapted so burning does not kill it. Native plants burn more quickly and thoroughly than brome pastures. Flowering plants in the burn unit will bloom slightly later in the season than in unburned portions which extends availability of nectar resources for pollinators. Many flowering plants will have more flowers and seed production during the year of the burn (=more nectar resources and more food resources).
This time of year, people may wonder about the effects of fire on grassland ground-nesting birds. Since they evolved with the prairie and fires, they have strategies to adapt and are very persistent re-nesters. If they lose a nest to a fire, they will re-nest. In order to keep the whole grassland functioning long term, prescribed fire is necessary along with some short term-losses of nests. Natural areas are broken up into units so that the whole area doesn't have fire at the same time. A burn unit may only see one fire every 3-7 years, though some areas are burned more frequently.
To protect crop land near the burn units, corn stubble was removed from the outer edge of fields. Much of the prairie to be burned is on top of the Loess Hills ridges, while lower areas are cultivated rowcrops. The blackened area won't last long, as green prairie plants will begin to dot the landscape within a few days.
The diversity of the burn unit offered ample opportunities to see how fire behavior varies with fuel, topography, and weather changes. When a large brush pile caught fire in a ravine, flame lengths reached 30 or more feet! Most of the fires, however, were only a few inches to a few feet tall.
In addition to the ecological and wildlife habitat benefits, prescribed fires help maintain the unique Loess Hills scenery along the viewshed of the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. This fire was located on the Wilderness Loop of the byway in Monona County, which includes some of the most rugged and remote parts of the state. Firefighters posted signs on the road to warn drivers of possible smoke, and to let people know that the fires are intentional.
While you're out exploring the Loess Hills this spring, don't be surprised if you see smoke and flames. It is probably a prescribed fire being used to restore our fragile and globally-significant Loess Hills!
For more information about prescribed fire in the Loess Hills, visit the Loess Hills Alliance's Stewardship Committee web page.
We are approaching the peak of spring bird migration. National Audubon Day is April 26 and May 9 is Global Big Day. Right now is an excellent time to head outdoors to look, listen, and learn.
Western Skies Scenic Byway is book-ended by two Bird Conservation Areas (BCAs), which aim to protect bird habitat. The Loess Hills Bird Conservation Area "contains 94,048 acres in Monona and Harrison counties, of which nearly 19,000 acres are protected by conservation easements or publicly owned. Bird diversity here is exceptional, with 249 species identified, including 80 Iowa Species of Greatest Conservation Need. Currently, 111 species are known to nest in this BCA’s prairies, savannas, woodlands, and wetlands." Download a brochure.
The Raccoon River Savanna BCA in Guthrie and Carroll counties, "was the tenth to be created in the state of Iowa. Totaling 54,361 acres, this large land tract encompasses three core areas in which conservation measures can be targeted: Whiterock Conservancy, Springbrook State Park, and Elk Grove Wildlife Area. This the first Iowa BCA to focus on savanna, often likened to a transition zone between prairie and forest that is crucial for many of Iowa’s birds. As many as one-third of the state’s 200 breeding birds can be found nesting in this increasingly rare habitat." Download a brochure.
Desoto National Wildlife Refuge is the only national refuge along the byway corridor. Each spring and fall, hundreds of thousands of waterfowl migrate through. Bald eagles and many other birds are also frequently seen. Lakes like Prairie Rose, wetlands, prairies, and woodlands are all grate places to view birds.
The county and city of Audubon, in the middle of the Byway, are named after famous birder John James Audubon. In downtown Audubon, you will find a statue of Audubon at the city park, a stained glass image of Audubon, and more than 200 tiled bird mosaics inset into the sidewalks. Inside the Audubon Post Office is a mural of John James Audubon and his party during their journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
As you drive across Audubon County on Highway 44, pay attention to the roads you pass. They're named after birds, alphabetically from west to east (Bluebird, Crane, Dove, Eagle...to Pheasant, Quail, Robin, Swift.
Additionally, the Iowa Ornithologists' Union includes several birding hotspots along Western Skies.
Numerous other parks, wildlife areas, and trails exist along the byway and offer ample birding and wildlife-watching opportunities. Head out to any of these areas. Stop, watch, and listen. You'll be surprised at how many birds you'll see and hear!
Other birding resources & links:
As the weather warms up, cabin fever is setting in for many of us. While some of the more popular public areas are busier than ever, many of the less-known parks, wildlife areas and trails are waiting for new visitors.
Hiking, biking, paddling, fishing, hunting, foraging, birding, and many more great outdoor recreation opportunities abound along Western Skies Scenic Byway in western Iowa's Harrison, Shelby, Audubon and Guthrie counties. Most of the byway is within an hour of the Omaha and/or Des Moines metro, but just far enough that you can easily avoid the crowds you'll find in most urban and suburban parks and trails!.
Please note that areas may have certain hours or closures (campgrounds, restrooms, and other facilities), so research before you go and explore. Check rules and regulations. Avoid groups ,practice social distancing, and stay home if you are or have recently been ill.
Desoto National Wildlife Refuge - This refuge includes hiking trails through a large wildlife refuge along the Missouri River. It’s a great place to see wildlife, especially waterfowl and other birds. Desoto refuge brochure & map.
Harrison County Welcome Center - In addition to an Iowa Welcome Center and historical village complex, this welcome center just outside Missouri Valley.
Loess Hills State Forest (LHSF) & Preparation Canyon State Park- The state forest and park encompass nearly 12,000 acres over four units in Harrison and Monona counties, with dozens of miles of hiking-only trails.
Old Town Conservation Area - This area has about 10 miles of hiking trails through prairies and woodlands overlooking the Boyer and Missouri river valleys as well as the community of Missouri Valley.
Sawmill Hollow Wildlife Area - Known best for a popular fishing hole, Sawmill Hollow has 155 acres of wooded Loess Hills and ridgetop prairie to explore. Sawmill Hollow map.
Schaben Park - Located near Dunlap in northeastern Harrison County, hiking trails surround a small pond through oak woodlands. Schaben Park trail map.
Willow Lake Recreation Area - 220-acre park near Woodbine, including popular lake and campgrounds. Hiking trails wind through Loess Hills prairies and around the lake. Willow Lake map.
Wilson Island Recreation Area - Adjacent to Desoto refuge, this 544-acre state-managed area has trails winding through floodplain woodlands near the Missouri River.
Dinesen Prairie State Preserve - This is one of the few prairie remnants (never plowed) in the Nishnabotna watershed. As a state preserve, it is permanently protected from any kind of development.
Elk Horn Creek Recreation Area - Beautiful wildlife area in southeastern Shelby County, with camping, hiking and more.
Manteno Park - Set in the hills of Grove Township is the Shelby County Conservation Board's most popular area with a fishing lake, campgrounds, hiking, and more.
Nishna Bend Recreation Area - This park features 2 camping cabins, 18 campsites with modern shower building, 5 sandpit fishing ponds, river fishing, trails, and public hunting.
Oak Ridge Habitat Area - 94 acres of timber and prairie. This is a public hunting area that is managed for wildlife habitat.
Petersen Wildlife Management Area - More than 450 acres of upland habitat in northern Shelby County.
Prairie Rose State Park - Popular fishing and paddling lake with several miles of hiking trails through prairies, woods, and wetlands.
Rock Island Old Stone Arch Nature Trail - This paved trail located primarily in Shelby County extends just into Pottawattamie County with a trailhead near the Shelby exit on Interstate 80. The trail runs west through woods, prairies, wetlands, and creeks and crosses Silver Creek on an historic Stone Arch Bridge.
Rosenow Timber - 116 acres of timber in northwest Shelby County.
Schimerowski Park is a 12 acre park on the edge of Earling with a walking path, picnic shelter, restroom, playground, and wetland.
Six Bee Tree Timber - 40 acres of timber located directly across the road to the east of Manteno Park. This is a public hunting area with a mowed trail loop going through it.
Littlefield Recreation Area - Audubon County's premier park includes a popular lake, campgrounds, hiking trails, and more.
T-Bone Recreational Trail - 21-mile paved recreational trail on a former rail line. The trail connects the communities of Audubon, Hamlin, Exira, and Brayton.
Bays Branch Wildlife Area - Nearly 1,400 acres of upland and wetland habitat near Panora. Primarily a hunting area but great for wildlife- and bird-watching.
Bennie Hall Wildlife Area - The 220-acre area lies adjacent to existing public land and created a 517-acre wildlife habitat complex. The area's primary use is as wildlife habitat for game and non-game species.
Elk Grove Wildlife Management Area - 1,600-acre wooded wildlife area, primarily used for hunting but open to hiking and wildlife-watching.
Lakin Slough Wildlife Management Area - More than 300 acres of wetland & upland habitat. Primarily used for hunting but also a great spot for wildlife viewing.
Lenon Mill Park - Small park on the edge of Panora along Raccoon River including campgrounds and a river access near the Lenon Mill dam.
Marlowe Ray State Wildlife Area - 185 acres of timber habitat along the Middle Raccoon River.
McCord Pond Wildlife Management Area - Half marsh and half upland habitat, this 112-acre area is popular for hunting and wildlife viewing.
Middle Raccoon River Wildlife Management Area - 1,305 acres of floodplain & upland timber and open fields.
Montieth Wildlife Area - County park with 240 acres mainly used as a public hunting area.. Also includes hiking and wildlife-watching opportunities.
Nations Bridge Park - 81-acre county park along the South Raccoon River with camping, hiking, river access, and more.
Raccoon River Valley Trail - This former railroad line is a scenic, paved trail linking metro Des Moines with small communities through eastern Guthrie County.
S.E. Robinson Wildlife Area - 110-acre wildlife area located along the Middle Raccoon River.
Sheeder Prairie State Preserve - 24-acre remnant (never-plowed) prairie near Guthrie Center.
Springbrook State Park - This park near Guthrie Center includes a lake, campgrounds, and 12 miles of hiking trails.
Sutcliffe Woodland - 55-acre oak-hickory area designated as a wildlife refuge. It offers a 31-post, self-guided interpretive nature trail, as well as picnicking, hiking, and pond fishing.
Whiterock Conservancy - 5,500 acre non-profit land trust that balances sustainable agriculture, natural resource protection and public recreation on the landscape. Located near Coon Rapids, Iowa, along seven miles of the Middle Raccoon River valley, Whiterock is open to the public every day for recreation and exploration.
The parks and trails above are included in the map below. Click here to open the map in a new tab.