By Bill Blackburn
While U.S.-China relations have been tense recently when it comes to international trade, one area that has witnessed a new era of collaboration and cooperation between the two countries is the study of the Loess Hills. In June, a small gathering of U.S. and Chinese experts on loess soils and restoration met in Yangling, Shaanxi, China to share information on the Iowa Loess Hills and China Loess Plateau, their condition, value, restoration and protection, as well as the latest research on loess soils.
Loess (pronounced as “luss,” “Lois,“ or “less”) is a yellowish deposit of wind-blown rock dust found in Germany, Argentina, New Zealand, U.S., China, and many other parts of the world. However, it forms hills of significant height (60-350 feet) only in two places: in the Yellow River region in and around Shaanxi province, China, and in the mini-mountains (bluffs) in the Midwest U.S. that parallel the Missouri River 220 miles from Mound City, MO to Westfield, IA. In Iowa, the beautiful sharp-cliffed hills can be seen along Interstate 29 through the western sides of Fremont, Mills, Pottawattamie, Harrison, Monroe, Woodbury, and Plymouth Counties. They were formed from glacier-ground rock powder brought down the Missouri River and blown into dunes by westerly winds.
The Chinese “Loess Plateau,” which covers an area only slightly less than the entire state of Texas, is located several hundred miles southwest of Beijing. The loess there eroded from various mountain areas over millions of years, was collected in the Gobi and other deserts, and from there was blown into the plateau. Over the centuries, the Loess Plateau, had become massively eroded from overgrazing and deforestation, with the resulting erosion filling the Yellow River with deposits of so much loess that devastating flooding of croplands became common. A huge restoration project funded largely by the World Bank and others set out to partially restore the plateau over an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
The June U.S.-China Exchange on Loess Landforms came about as a result of a lecture series on the Loess Plateau done in Western Iowa and Omaha in 2017 by John Liu, a Chinese-American documentary film-maker from Beijing, who had recorded the dramatic conditions of the Plateau before and after restoration. Acclaimed soil scientist Professor Robert Horton of Iowa State University worked with his long-time friend, senior Professor Baoyuan Liu (no relation to John) and Professor Fan Jun, both soil scientists at China’s Northwest University of Agriculture and Forestry, to have NWUAF sponsor the meeting.
The Gilchrist Foundation, which co-sponsored John Liu’s 2017 lecture tour, also funded the participation of young professionals, Graham McGaffin, of the Nature Conservancy-Loess Hills, Sioux City, and Assistant Professor Bradley Miller of Iowa State. Also participating from the U.S. were Professor Michael Thompson of Iowa State, and Bill Blackburn of the Green Hollow Center in Fremont County. Presentation were also given via the internet by Professor Tom Bragg, plant specialist from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and John Thomas, loess erosion expert from the Hungry Canyons erosion control program at Golden Hills RC&D in Oakland.
Besides the one-day conference in Yangling, the U.S.-China delegation also visited NWUAF soils research stations in the Loess Plateau near Chang Wu and Ansai to review their latest research projects. The tour was capped off with a visit to the famous terra cotta warriors of the Qin Dynasty Emperor that were buried near Xian in the Plateau around 200 BC---warriors we were surprised to learn were made of loess soil glued together with rice water.
The agenda and presentations offered at the Exchange and pictures from the tour of the Plateau can be seen on the Golden Hills RC&D website ( www.goldenhillsrcd.org/ucell.html). A follow-up meeting in Western Iowa is now being considered.
Golden Hills is working with Iowa Rivers Revival and local partners to host the Master River Stewards Program (MRSP) in western Iowa in 2019. MRSP is an adult-education program that teaches watershed awareness, paddling and navigating skills, river and stream dynamics, aquatic habitat, water quality and water monitoring, and policies related to floodplains, river protection and restoration.
Cost for the program is $50 but financial assistance may be available upon request. Registration will close on August 12 or when maximum capacity is reached. This is a certificate program and participants are expected to attend all sessions to receive certification. If you are unable to attend all sessions but are still interested in participating, we may be able to accommodate. Email Project Coordinator Lance Brisbois with questions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a more detailed agenda and registration, visit Golden Hills' MRSP web page.
Golden Hills is excited to announce that we have been awarded $350,000 in the latest round of Iowa West Foundation grants for the Loess Hills Missouri River Region Cabin Initiative. This partnership with Harrison, Mills, and Pottawattamie county conservation boards will construct new cabins at Willow Lake Recreation Area, Pony Creek Park, and Arrowhead Park.
Through this collaboration, the three counties will receive a volume discount on the cabins and will increase profitability for the three parks. Increasing opportunities for cabin camping in the tri-county region will also encourage more residents and visitors to explore and enjoy the abundant outdoor recreation opportunities in the region.
Each cabin will have an open concept including kitchen, bathrooms, outdoor porch, and fire pit. The cabins will each accommodate 10-12 people, offering a rustic cabin experience with modern conveniences.
These three parks were decided based on the Iowa Parks Foundation's Cabins Task Force recommendations. Each site includes outdoor recreation opportunities like fishing, paddling, hiking, and wildlife watching.
The six cabins are expected to be built in 2019 and open for rentals by summer 2020.
Learn more about the Loess Hills Missouri River Region Parks to People plan here.
Golden Hills staff will be at four county fairgrounds in July with information about our recent water quality projects installed at the fairgrounds. Staff will have free information to hand out and will have activities for youth to learn about watersheds and water quality. Tentative dates and times are below:
Fremont County Fairgrounds
Additionally, join us on Tuesday, July 16 for a tour of three of the sites with IDALS Secretary Mike Naig!
Golden Hills RC&D invites the public to a ribbon-cutting ceremonies for the completion of three bioretention cells at the Mills, Montgomery, and Fremont county fairgrounds. These water quality practices will help slow the flow of rainwater on its path to enter the Nishnabotna River, preventing flooding, soil erosion, and nutrient runoff. These projects are funded by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s Water Quality Initiative Grant.
Golden Hills RC&D has partnered with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to welcome Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig to our region and celebrate completion of these projects in an effort to raise awareness of urban water quality practices in rural communities. The ribbon cutting ceremonies will take place Tuesday, July 16th at each of the fairgrounds. The times are listed below.
Mills County (Malvern)- 3:00 PM
Fremont County (Sidney) - 5:00 PM
Montgomery County (Red Oak) - 7:00 PM
Learn more about this project here.
Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship recently announced
funding for the 2019 round of Iowa Water Quality Initiative (WQI) program. Golden Hills was awarded funding for our project, "Bringing Urban Practices to Rural Communities." This is a multi-site project that will add urban water quality practices (bioretention cells and rain gardens) to county courthouses and fairgrounds in Avoca, Glenwood, Malvern, Oakland, Red Oak, and Sidney. We will also add a rain garden at our office in Oakland. Each site will include education and outreach for youth and adults. See the bottom of this page for scheduled events. Projects will be constructed in spring-summer 2019 and spring 2020.
This effort includes public education and outreach. Prior to each project build, we will host an educational session targeted towards youth (but open to all ages). 4-H and FFA members are especially encouraged to attend, but you do not need to be a member of either to join. These sessions will discuss issues related to water quality and quantity and tie back to our local Nishnabotna watershed. This information will help people understand why practices like rain gardens and bioretention cells are important.
Each project site will be visible to the public beyond county fair time and able to be used for additional education and outreach about both water quality practices such as rain gardens, bioswales permeable pavers, and native vegetation. Each site will have a kickoff event as well as a public ribbon cutting when completed. Project partners will have an informational booth at the sites during county fairs to educate fairgoers about the water quality practices.
We will rely on volunteers to help build each project. We are seeking donations for mulch, sand, rock, plants and equipment. At each of the fairgrounds, we will host a ribbon-cutting event once the project is complete.
Learn more about the project and how you can get involved on the project web page.
In fall 2018, we partnered with Pottawattamie County Conservation and Iowa Prairie Network on events for native prairie seed harvest. In 2019, with support from Gilchrist Foundation, we are expanding these efforts throughout the Loess Hills.
We will work with local partners to find volunteers for the project. Volunteers will visit local prairie remnants and learn how to identify which plants are available for seed collection. The harvested seed will then be used for local prairie restoration and reconstruction projects.
We anticipate at least monthly seed harvest workshops from May through October at several sites in the Loess Hills and will be looking for volunteers. If you are interested, fill out this form.
Check the project website for more details as they are confirmed!
We are partnering with West Pottawattamie Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and Pottawattamie County Conservation to offer the Iowa Master Conservationist Program starting Spring 2019. The program will take place primarily at Hitchcock Nature Center, providing participants with hands-on interaction with the diversity of the state’s natural resources. The program teaches about Iowa’s natural ecosystems and the diversity of conservation challenges and opportunities that exist in the region. Graduates of the course learn to make informed choices for leading and educating others to improve conservation in Iowa.
The program consists of approximately 12 hours of online curriculum and six face-to-face meetings. The online modules will include lessons and resources by Iowa State subject-matter experts to be reviewed at the participants’ own pace at home or at the ISU Extension and Outreach West Pottawattamie County office. Module topics include conservation history and science, understanding Iowa ecosystems, implementing conservation practices in human dominated landscapes and developing skills to help educate others about conservation practices.
Six face-to-face meetings will build on the online lessons and be held at Hitchcock Nature Center from 8:00 a.m. to Noon on the 4th Saturday of the month starting April 27th and ending September 28th. Each face-to-face meeting will be led by local subject-matter experts to demonstrate how the principles covered in the online curriculum and play out locally. Participants will work with program partners Golden Hills RC&D, Pottawattamie County Conservation, Pottawattamie County Soil & Water Conservation, Pottawattamie County NRCS, ISU Extension and Outreach West Pottawattamie, along with educational experts in their fields.
Registration for the course is $100/participant or $50 for college and high school students with a valid school ID and is due at the time of registration. To register contact the ISU Extension and Outreach West Pottawattamie County office at 712-366-2646. The deadline to register is April 19th at 4:00 p.m.
ISU Extension and Outreach—West Pottawattamie County
Hamburg, IA (January 14) – A new chapter begins in Iowa’s State Parks this week as the Artist in Residence Program kicks off at Waubonsie State Park. This is the first program of its type to be implemented in any of Iowa’s State Parks. The goal of the residency is to connect with a broader audience of park-goers, thus increasing the number of visitors and ultimately educating more people about the Loess Hills ecosystem. The artists and visitors will engage with the natural resources of the park through a visual arts lens. Artists will use their time at Waubonsie to immerse themselves in the landscape as a source of inspiration and opportunity to intensely focus on their work. In exchange for their accommodations they will leave a permanent work of art for the park and also conduct a public engagement session during their stay.
Tom Harnack is the program’s first Artist in Residence. He was born and raised in Carroll, Iowa area and has been a dedicated artist for the past 37 years. Tom received his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa in 1995. In 1998, he worked and studied in Shigaraki, Japan at a center that dates back to the twelfth century. From his experience there, Tom has built two anagama kilns in the Midwest. Tom also co-founded Omaha ClayWorks in 2000. He is accomplished in all aspects of ceramics and continues to introduce others to the art through demonstrations and classes. Excited about the opportunity for a residency program at Waubsonsie State Park, Tom reflects on the Loess Hills, “I feel as an artist, nature is my main inspiration. When I fire my wood kiln, it takes 7 days outdoors. Whether it be the owls in the grove, or the stars before sunrise, it’s being in the natural environment that inspires my creativity.”
Tom’s residency at Waubonsie lasts through mid-February. As part of the outreach portion of this program, there will be four opportunities for open studio times. The public is invited to join Tom at the Washawtee Maintenance Shed (smaller building off the south parking lot of the Lodge) where his residency studio is set up. Visitors will have a chance to learn about the art of ceramics, watch Tom while he creates and ask questions in a relaxed intimate setting. Open studio hours are from 6 to 8 PM on the following dates in February: Tuesday the 5th, Thursday the 7th, Tuesday the 12thand Thursday the 14th. Visitors are encouraged to come early to hike around the park and explore the wonders of Waubonsie! Tom’s final public outreach event will be a celebration at Washawtee Lodge on Friday, February 15th from 6 to 8 PM. There will be a potluck dinner and viewing of some of Tom’s works from 6 to 7 PM, followed by a presentation of the history of Tom’s career in ceramics, which started at a young age and has taken him across the world.
Tom is one of three artists who were selected from a multitude of applications received from artists in six states and a variety of disciplines. Additional artists receiving the residency awards for January through April of 2019 include Vanessa Lacy of Kansas City (Missouri) and Zack Jones of Malvern (Iowa). This first-in-the-state Artist in Residency program at one of Iowa’s State Parks is held at one of the region’s ecological and recreational treasures.
Located in the Loess Hills of Southwest Iowa, Waubonsie State Park’s 2,000 acres feature prairies, savannas, and woodlands which are home to diverse flora and fauna, not to mention breathtaking vistas. Park Manager Matt Moles has been working with Golden Hills RC&D Project Coordinator Lance Brisbois and Loess Hills National Scenic Byway Coordinator Rebecca Castle to develop and launch the project. While there have been other artist residency programs offered through the National Parks System and select parks in other states, this will be the first such program in one of Iowa’s State Parks.
The program is loosely modeled after similar regional programs such as the Residency Program at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. The artists will receive lodging in a studio cabin and a primitive studio space in the park at no cost for the duration of the residency. In return, artists will deliver at least one public program per month of their residency and donate one piece of art to the park at the conclusion of their stay.
Waubonsie State Park is only about an hour’s drive from Omaha or Lincoln, NE; two hours from Kansas City; and 2.5 hours from Des Moines. It is located near the southern end of the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway. To learn more about the Artist in Residence program and the artists, visit www.goldenhillsrcd.org/artist-in-residence.
By Doug Chafa
(Please note this post is part of the Loess Country series)
Named from the French word “becheur” which means, “digger,” badgers live in grasslands and do well on the edges of fields and forests. While they are found in all 99 of Iowa’s counties, badgers are more numerous in southern and western Iowa, and are particularly attracted to the native prairie, pasture, oak woodlands and farmland in the loess hills.
This iconic grassland predator is armed with 2 ½-to 3-inch claws on its front paws and known for its powerful and fierce disposition. This mammal has a grizzled gray fur color with short stout legs. Its facial markings are distinct, with black badges and white stripes on its cheeks and a white stripe from the nose to the neck. Its ears are set wide on the side of its head. It is primarily nocturnal and fossorial, which means spending time underground in dens. These fearless carnivores are in the mustelidae family that includes weasels and mink, and have the musky odor common among the members of this family.
Badgers have been known to eat gophers, ground squirrels, mice, snakes, frogs, and toads and are one of the few predators of skunks. They will eat ground nesting birds, their eggs, and nestlings and will scale banks to dig out and eat bank swallow nestlings or eggs. Badgers can dig a large number of burrows searching for pocket gophers. While the burrows can be hazards to machinery and livestock, badgers do provide a significant amount of rodent control.
Mating season stretches from late summer into the fall. Badgers have delayed implantation where the fertilized embryo doesn’t start development until February. Two to three kits are born early in the spring, blind and covered with fur. Their eyes open at four weeks and the kits are weaned at eight weeks. The young disperse late summer through early fall and can be spotted during the day. The young are less alert to roads and vehicles so many are hit on highways.
Instead of hibernating, badgers use long cycles of sleepiness during the winter which reduces their expenditure of energy and need to forage. They can be seen in the winter as they occasionally exit their dens on days when the temperature is above freezing.
Badgers have a well-earned reputation as being aggressive and fierce. They snarl, hiss, and growl when confronted, often making a series of short bluff charges at perceived threats before retreating to the safety of a den.
I stumbled upon a pair of fighting badgers as a kid and it was one of the loudest and most savage fights I have ever witnessed. They were oblivious to my dog and me as they circled and snarled and tangled with each other with vicious bites and wrestling. Badgers have very loose skin which allows them to turn and bite back, even when an attacker is biting and pulling on them.
Adult females weigh up to 14 pounds and males can hit 30 pounds. They have few predators in western Iowa, but in western states, mountain lions, wolves, and bears have been known to kill adult badgers. Young badgers are occasionally taken by golden eagles and coyotes.
The badger’s earthworks are useful to other wildlife and plants. Some animals, like coyotes, groundhogs, and foxes, make use of badger dens and burrows. Burrowing owls have been known to nest in badger burrows. Snakes and toads use the burrows to cool during the heat of warm days. Mounds of dirt excavated by badger burrowing create bare soil for prairie seeds to colonize. So while you may or may not ever see a badger, most likely you’ve seen its handiwork.