By Bill Blackburn
(first in a series of Loess Hills articles. Stay tuned for future posts!)
Take a drive along I-29 any fine day and you will see an extremely rare site—the Loess Hills. “Loess,’ which according to Webster can be pronounced as “luss,” “Lois,“ or “less,” is a German term meaning loose or crumbly. It refers to 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. running parallel to the Missouri River 220 miles from Mound City, MO to Westfield, IA. In Iowa, the beautiful sharp-cliffed hills pass through the western sides of Fremont, Mills, Pottawattamie, Harrison, Monroe, Woodbury, and Plymouth Counties.
Our 640,000-acre bluffs are geologically speaking relatively new, having been formed only 12,000 t0 115,000 years ago when glaciers were grinding rock into powder in the north, which was carried down the Missouri River, deposited on the bottom ground and eventually blown westerly into dunes.
But the granddaddy of loess hills is the Chinese “Loess Plateau,” which covers an area only slightly less than the entire state of Texas located several hundred miles southwest of Beijing. In China, the loess 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. But the wind is still at work there, causing the plateau to gradually move to the southeast over time. As in the U.S., the Chinese loess is highly erodible, so much so that the Yellow River which passes through the plateau was named because of the vast amounts of yellow-brown loess it carries downstream.
The Loess Hills are rich aesthetically, ecologically, and historically. The U.S. Loess Hills Byway, which threads through the hills, was named one of the 10 most scenic roads in the country by nonprofit Scenic America. The state of Iowa has cited 39 rare animal and plant species in the hills. Hills animals such as the plains pocket mouse, ornate box turtle, Great Plains skink (lizard), and spadefoot toad are becoming rare and even endangered. Bald eagles and a wide range of other birds reside there or pass through annually. The bluffs contain three-fourths of Iowa’s remaining natural prairies.
The Bluffs region is one of the country’s prehistoric gems, having been traversed by humans for over 12,000 years. It is home to more than 800 archeological sites, including late settlements of Mill Creek (900 AD), where predecessors of the Mandan tribe resided, and the Glenwood site (1000 AD or so), where 80 lodge sites of Pawnee and Arikaras ancestors were discovered. The region opened the gates for pioneers moving westward from there through the Mormon, California and Oregon Trails, and later, from the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad.
The history of China’s Loess Plateau is even more impressive. It is the location of the 1.3 million-year-old site displaying the oldest use of fire by Homo erectus, the predecessor to modern humans. The fertility of the region around the Yellow River valley enabled it to become the cradle of Chinese civilization. It was an important trading center on the famous Silk Road. Its military importance was reflected by the famous terra cotta army of the Qin Dynasty Emperor that was buried there. The region served as the home to subsequent Chinese dynasties up to the 900s AD, when the capital was moved, eventually to Beijing.
By the time the center of Chinese culture had move out of the Loess Plateau, the area 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 set out to partially restore the plateau over an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
Whether in China or Western Iowa, the loess hills are a rare gem of past, present and future importance—aesthetically, ecologically, historically and economically. They deserve our appreciation.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Golden Hills RC&D and the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway are excited to announce the Waubonsie State Park Artist in Residence awards for the Spring of 2019! Many quality applications were received from a variety of disciplines and artists in six different states. Three artists were selected to fill residencies from January through April of next year. Artists receiving the residency awards for 2019 include Thomas Harnack, Vanessa Lacy and Zack Jones. The goal of the residency program is to reach 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. This year’s residency program’s three 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.
Tom Harnack was born and raised in Carroll, Iowa area and has been a dedicated artist for the past 37 years. While at Waubonsie he plans to focus his work on ceramics. 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.”
Vanessa Lacy grew up in rural Adrian, Missouri. She currently owns a gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, although she often escapes the city to paint in rural areas to seek nature as a source of inspiration and tranquility. Vanessa’s vision for her residency fits well with that of the program as a whole. “I believe art and the parks have always gone hand in hand. The park inspires the artist and the artist’s work inspires more visitors to visit.” Vanessa’s work will be primarily oil paint on panel, and her outreach will feature painting workshops.
Zack Jones was raised in Malvern, Iowa but began his self-taught art career while living in Tempe, Arizona. While there, he was mentored by lifetime artist Sergio Ladron De Guevara, who taught Zack traditional art and to paint with love. Since returning to his hometown in 2006, he has done just that –connecting his art to historical preservation, recreation and rural Southwest Iowa. Zack is currently doing a residency program at Whiterock Conservancy, which ties into his goal of connecting traditional landscape paintings to conservation programs. “I would like to use my paintings to highlight the unique geography while highlighting Waubonsie State Park. My artwork is at its best when there is a personal connection and common interest with others.”
Artist Sarah Berkeley is currently piloting the residency program at Waubonsie and helping to finalize program details. Sarah was born on the North Shore of Massachusetts and subsequently spent her childhood in Michigan and Colorado. She works across media questioning cultural norms such as the 9:00 to 5:00 work day, the office environment, indoor living, gender stereotypes and the voluntary sharing of personal data. She creates public interventions and durational performances which she documents using photography, video and GPS.
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, the park’s 2,000 acres feature prairies, savannas, and woodlands which are home to diverse flora and fauna, not to mention breathtaking vistas. Waubonsie State Park Manager Matt Moles has been working with artist Sarah Berkeley, 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.
Drone footage by Dave Poole. Visit our YouTube channel for more videos!
Golden Hills RC&D, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and Trees Forever are partnering to bring back the Iowa Trails Summit for 2018! Mark your calendar for Friday, October 12th! The Raccoon River Valley Trail Association will be hosting a social ride beginning at 4:30 PM Thursday evening, wrapping up with a pre-conference meet & greet!
The morning welcome session will set the stage for the day. In an interactive group discussion, we will highlight challenges, successes, and best practices. We will get to know a little about each trail group’s “story” and discover who we may learn from and who we may be able to give advice to.
Our breakout panels will feature 3 tracks - for those who Want a Trail, Have a Trail, and Water Trails. Full agenda and registration is available at
Hundreds of years ago, prairie covered nearly 80 percent of Iowa’s landscape. Years later, less than 0.1 percent of native prairie remains. Part of restoring the land for soil health and wildlife habitat includes gathering, collecting, and planting native prairie grasses and forbs. On Monday, September 24, 2018, Golden Hills RC&D and the Pottawattamie County Conservation Board are providing an opportunity to learn more about Iowa prairie and collect native prairie seeds at Hitchcock Nature Center.
Participants will meet at the Loess Hills Lodge at 5:30pm. After a brief training and discussion about prairie seed collection, participants will stroll through the prairie and collect native prairie seed. The collected seeds will be used to restore and reconstruct Loess Hills prairies at Hitchcock. This evening happens to be the full "Harvest Moon," which will rise above the prairie at the end of the event.
Paper bags will be used in seed collection. Participants are invited to bring paper bags to contribute to the project, but some bags will be available at the event. Because this event is outdoors on the rugged western edge of Iowa’s Loess Hills, Pottawattamie County Conservation recommends bringing a water bottle, wearing work gloves and hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes.
This event is free and open to the public, and no registration is required. Participants at this event are not required to purchase a daily entrance pass or have an annual membership to attend this program.
This event is part of Loess Hills & Heritage Week—September 22-30, which celebrates the scenic and unique Loess Hills landform of Western Iowa. To learn more about this event visit http://www.pottcoconservation.com/. For more information about Loess Hills & Heritage Week visit http://www.visitloesshills.org/lhhw.html.
Known as “sugar clay,” the Loess Hills are a beautiful habitat that stretch along the Missouri River Valley. George Catlin has labeled the hills as “soul melting scenery.” Cornelia F. Mutel calls them “fragile giants.” And Dr. John Price explains their essence as “sacred ground.” Western Iowa is celebrating this beautiful formation during the first Literary Loess event, connecting food and literature, on Saturday, September 22 from 10:00-2:00 pm in Waubonsie State Park at the Washawtee Lodge near Hamburg, Iowa. This event is kicking off Loess Hills and Heritage Week, which celebrates the region’s unique and cultural assets.
Local and regional authors and producers will be making connections between the landscape, literature, and local foods. Participants can come and go between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm or stay the whole time. Producers will provide local food samples, and authors will be featuring excerpts from their books at various intervals throughout the day. Featured authors at this event include Dr. John Price, Jack Phillips, Jeff Koterba, Ruth Harper, Marcy Seible, Matt Mason, Sean Doolittle, Kelly Madigan, Lisa Knop, Angela Glover, Mike Whye, and Sarah Mason.
Fresh produce and tastes of the region will include cheese and wine, mixed greens, lamb, beef, wild game, honey and more. This family-friendly event will incorporate hands-on writing opportunities, a craft, and “Hoop the Fair,” which will provide “easy, beginner’s hula hoops and gentle coaching to help people of all ages get hooping with ease,” said Kelly Madigan, author and founder of “Hoop the Fair.”
Golden Hills RC&D and Dr. John Price, University of Nebraska-Omaha English Professor, collaborated to coordinate this event. “The inaugural Literary Loess is the result of a long-time dream to bring together area writers and independent food producers to share the many ways this place inspires us. The beautiful Loess Hills is a local natural treasure, and those who join us will find nourishment for both body and mind,” said Price.
Literary Loess will be followed by a “Hike and Write” with naturalist and nature writer Jack Phillips, principal of the Naturalist School from 2:00-4:00 pm. Phillips will guide us through the hills and lead us through a writing exercise following the walk. “Mindful walking and writing makes us porous and through these natural acts we become wilder,” said Phillips.
Partners to support this event include Golden Hills RC&D, Friends of Waubonsie State Park, Loess Hills Scenic Byway, and the UNO English Department and Creative Nonfiction Writing Program.
Connect. Listen. Taste. Learn. Experience. Grow. All in the Loess Hills. For more information about this event contact Tina at Tina@goldenhillsrcd.org or call 712.482.3029.
Last year, Golden Hills RC&D coordinated and collaborated with conservation boards, Loess Hills Alliance, Bill Blackburn, and others, creating Loess Hills and Heritage Week to celebrate western Iowa’s unique and cultural assets. During this week, individuals can escape from the hustle of work life and enjoy western Iowa’s Loess Hills during the second annual Loess Hills and Heritage Week, September 22-30, 2018. This week will “showcase the unique geological, topographical, archeological, and other distinct aspects of the Loess hills, including their special plants, animals, and history.”
The events span to several western counties in Iowa: Woodbury, Monona, Harrison, Pottawattamie, Mills, and Fremont. Some of the events include Literary Loess, Hike and Write, and a Pawpaw festival at Waubonsie State Park, Nature Calls in Sioux City, Apple Fest in Woodbury, Loess Hills Parks and Peaks Bike Ride, and multiple events at the Hitchcock Nature Center in Pottawattamie County. The complete list of events can be located on the following website: http://www.visitloesshills.org/events-list.html.
The Loess Hills (pronounced “Luss”), meaning loose or crumbly, is one of Iowa’s important natural resources, ranging 640,000 Acres, across Western Iowa. Blackburn said, “To get people to protect the hills, we have to get people engaged, being mindful of the economic, social, and environmental impacts.” According to the Nonprofit Scenic America, these hills have unique plant and animal species and native Iowa prairie, making the Loess Hills one of the 10 ten most scenic byways in the United States.
Experience the Loess Hills. From a bike. On a hike. With food. All during Loess Hills and Heritage Week. For more information, contact Tina at Tina@goldenhillsrcd.org or 712.482.3029.
By Tina Bakehouse, Outreach & Communication Coordinator Golden Hills RC&D
Five years ago a group of rural artists and Golden Hills RC&D, a Southwest Iowa nonprofit, had a vision. They wanted people to visit small town Iowa to promote art. Thus, in 2014, the Southwest Iowa Art Tour initiated its inaugural debut. The tour is celebrating its 5th year and has grown. The first tour featured nine community stops with 30 artists. The event has grown to include fourteen unique stops with more than 85 artists.
Southwest Iowa has become a creative hub of artists.
This self-guided tour allows participants to come and go from location to location at their leisure, exploring diverse art forms, including metal, sculpture, quilting, paint, jewelry, and more from more than 85 artists.
This event will be held Saturday, September 15 from 10:00-5:00 pm and Sunday, September 16 from noon-4:00 pm, which includes 11 unique stops in the following Southwest Iowa towns: Glenwood, Macedonia, Malvern, Red Oak, Harlan, Shenandoah, Tabor, Avoca, Neola, Sidney, and Council Bluffs.
The Southwest Iowa Art Tour is coordinated by Golden Hills and supported by local artists from throughout the region who collaborate to provide opportunities for the public to view and purchase their work. Funding to support this free event has been provided by the Iowa Arts Council, Art Works, the National Endowment for the Arts, and numerous local businesses.
The Southwest Iowa Art Tour wants to connect rural communities through visual art. Paul Koch, potter from Painted Camel in Macedonia, said, “The Southwest Iowa Art Tour celebrates the talents of artists living in rural communities and brings people to gathering places who may not have experienced the beauty and charm of these smaller towns.” By promoting and educating rural art, the art tour assists in the viability, recognition, and support of artists to cultivate visual arts appreciation and celebrate the traditional and contemporary arts.
For more information be sure to check the “Southwest Iowa Art” Tour Facebook page, visit their website: www.swiarttour.com, or contact Tina Bakehouse at 712.482.3029 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Come support our artists in Southwest Iowa, and be a part of “connecting communities through art.”
Golden Hills RC&D is a nonprofit organization with a mission “to develop and promote sustainable cultural and conservation projects that enhance the quality of life and preserve the assets of rural western Iowa.” It takes the financial support of southwest Iowa organizations and community members for Golden Hills RC&D to continue offering projects in arts, culture, and conservation. For more information about Golden Hills RC&D visit www.goldenhillsrcd.org. Support Golden Hills RC&D and your community. Together, we can help make rural towns vibrant.
By Tina Bakehouse, Outreach & Communication Coordinator, Golden Hills RC&D
Judy Dittmar strides across Zack Edler’s third grade classroom. With a purple marker in hand, she writes “KUMQUAT” on the board in all-caps. As the Roosevelt Elementary students file into the classroom, they point to the strange word and murmur, “What’s that?”
Dittmar, the 54-year-old dietitian for the Council Bluffs Community School District, announces, “Who’s ready to try a kumquat?” Some hands shoot up, while some students raise their eyebrows, hesitant to try the orange, oblong fruit.
Dittmar is on the frontlines of America’s struggle to get its children to eat better. Few places in Iowa have as big of an obesity problem as the county that surrounds Council Bluffs. Pottawattamie County was near bottom for health—91st out of Iowa’s 99 counties. In a 2014 report, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 36.8% of Pottawattamie County adult residents are obese, a level that’s five percentage points higher than Iowa’s average of 31.6% for obesity.
Individuals who are obese have a higher risk for other lifetime health problems such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, Type II diabetes, and more. Poor nutrition ranks 6th out of 10 leading causes of death. This has significant financial consequences, increasing healthcare costs.
Teaching kids to eat right can help prevent a lifetime of obesity. “Obese kids are more likely to be obese adults,” said Suzy Wilson, a nutrition consultant at the Iowa Department of Public Health. “The habits kids learn when they’re young can translate to what they’ll do as adults.”
But breaking this cycle is hard.
“For one, it’s hard to change habits. Our environments are filled with snack foods and fast foods that are quick, cheap and tasty,” said Wilson.
Ruth Litchfield, Iowa State University Professor of Food Science and Nutrition said, “Our environment has been referred to as an ‘obesogenic environment’-- it does not promote physical activity and promotes consumption of large portions of high calorie, low nutrient food.”
In 2014, the Iowa Department of Public Health said 14% of junior high and high school students consume less than one fruit a day and 18% consume less than one vegetable a day, less than the daily recommended amount. The U.S. Agriculture Department recommends children ages 9-13 should eat 1 ½ cups of fruit a day and 2-2 ½ cups of vegetables a day.
Eating right is even harder for those who live in poverty. Junk food is less expensive. Many live in a food desert, where there are so few grocery stores that finding healthy, affordable food is hard. Unfortunately, one in five children in Iowa are food insecure. The U.S. Census Bureau shows 10% of Pottawattamie County residents live in poverty.
According to Lisa Stewart, Supervisor of Nutrition Services and Warehouse for Council Bluffs Public School District says, “Eight out of eleven elementary schools serve lunch to students for free. School is the primary food source in Council Bluffs.” The dependence on schools for food makes them perfect for teaching kids how to eat right.
Few school districts in Iowa are working as aggressively to improve the eating habits of their students. Council Bluffs is one of only 14 Iowa school districts, 92 schools in 13 counties, involved in the Pick a better snack program, a federal program developed in Iowa that teaches healthy eating habits and encourages physical activity. In order to qualify for the program, urban schools must report 60% of their student population participate in free and reduced-price lunch program; whereas, rural schools report 55% participation. Even having a dietitian conduct a nutrition lesson in an elementary school is unusual.
But Dittmar is proving that children from disadvantaged households can learn to eat healthier at home. Each month during a 30 minute lesson, she introduces a food, reads a related book, encourages students to do a physical activity like jumping jacks, provides food samples, and asks for student feedback. Dittmar says, “Kids are more likely to try new foods at school. It’s positive peer pressure.”
Her healthy habits are contagious. Buzzing through hallways with her food cart wearing a bright red, polo, jean skirt, and tights decorated with pictures of vegetables, she hugs students, welcomes food staff, and high-fives teachers. With her petite, athletic build, she exudes confidence and passion for healthy eating.
In high school, Dittmar thrived as an athlete and raised a garden with her family. She practices what she preaches. She runs half marathons, bikes trails and roadways, and enjoys eating fresh produce from the Bountiful Basket program.
Students give a “thumbs up” if they like the food. “Don’t ‘yuck’ my ‘yum’,” Dittmar says, teaching children to respect different opinions, empowering them to make their own decisions. Third graders receive bingo cards, encouraging families to be active and eat healthy. All students wear stickers, saying “ASK ME ABOUT _______” to elicit discussion with parents at home.
Hailey Moher, age 6, says, “She brings yummy things, and we try different fruits.” Mason Aldredge, age 6, says, “Judy is fun. We try new foods, like garbonzo beans.” Zach Edler, Roosevelt third grade teacher, has started eating the healthy snacks this year and has observed more students trying new foods because he’s willing to try them.
Sindy Kafka, Roosevelt kindergarten teacher, noted she’d never tried jicama before. Kafka says that because of Judy, she tried it, and along with the kindergartners, now knows what it is.
Wilson, from Iowa Department of Public Health, has seen Judy interact with students in the classroom, saying, “The kids like Judy. She does a great job relating to students and connecting the Pick a better snack lesson to academics, getting kids excited about fruits and vegetables.”
Stewart, Dittmar’s supervisor, agrees, saying, “I learned everything I know about nutrition from Judy. She’s very important to the district, this department, and a great part of our team.”
Dittmar’s lessons reach beyond the classroom. Her lessons even get parents to eat better. Sara Watts, Mason’s mom, says, “I normally don’t eat a lot of fruit and veggies. When we’re at the grocery store, my son points out food he’s had at school and asks me to buy them. Like pears. Or pineapple. Now, we’re eating a lot healthier at home.”
Pick a better snack has three goals: increase intake of fruits and vegetables through food tastings; increase physical activity to 60 minutes daily; and increase consumption of low-fat dairy. In this program, Dittmar presents fun, research-based lessons, prepares healthy snacks, and coordinates with teachers, Iowa Department of Public Health, other dietitians, and staff. She writes grants to fund her programs and supplies because her position is 80% grant funded.
Each month, she teaches 1,500 students in seven elementary schools, contacting over 12,000 youth each year, bringing in $57, 418 for the district.
Due to dietitians such as Dittmar, the Pick a better snack program affects children’s eating behavior. In 2011-2012, the USDA conducted a study that showed students participating in the Pick a better snack program ate more fruits and vegetables than those who did not participate in the program.
The word is getting out.
With an increase in marketing the program on social media, billboards, posters, online, and at schools, there’s more awareness about the program and the importance of eating healthy, supporting Dittmar’s efforts. “It’s making small changes in the food we choose to eat,” said Wilson, referring to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
But the program’s success is being overshadowed by budget fights in Washington. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education, “SNAP Ed,” is one of the programs under debate for future funding, which is supported by the Farm Bill. Agriculture committees in Congress are debating whether to make big changes to all SNAP Ed programs, which funds Pick a better snack. With over $600,000 devoted to the Pick a better snack program throughout the state each year, Iowa Department of Health officials are watching the Farm Bill debate closely to see whether SNAP-Ed will be cut.
Even with the program’s success, Dittmar is worried about the program going away. “I’m a nonessential,” she says. Nutrition education is considered supplemental education, and the program is threatened.
Even with these challenges, Dittmar continues pursuing opportunities to expandnutrition education in the district. She’s writing another grant. If she earns this grant, the Council Bluffs school system will have another dietitian who will teach Pick a better snack to more students in the district.
Dittmar holds the kumquat in her hand. Excited to find this “rare treasure,” she buys them in bulk to share. Grinning, she says, “Kumquats are my favorite—nature’s sour, tart candy. Give it a try.”
The students can’t let Dittmar down. After the sniff test, they pop the unique fruit in their mouths. Everyone makes a face. A few pass on second helpings. Several shriek in delight. Echoing many of the positive responses, Kinzie Jones, age 9 says, she’d try them again because “They’re both sweet and sour.”
If you walk into Roosevelt or the six other elementary schools, you’ll see the Council Bluffs Community School dietitian Judy Dittmar. She’ll be zooming from class to class with her “You’ve Got Power” cart, passing out snap peas, or hummus, or kumquats to try and smiling and hugging kids as they run by. Dittmar goes the extra mile. Like Stewart says, “There’s so much more to Judy’s job than feeding kids and giving snacks.”