From the Missouri River to the Raccoon River, Western Skies Scenic Byway traverses four of Iowa's landforms and many unique habitat types. If you're looking for waterfowl, upland birds, woodland birds, Western Skies Birding Trail has you covered.
Check out the new Birding Trail website to learn where you can go birding in the Western Skies corridor (Audubon, Guthrie, Harrison & Shelby counties) and what species you might find.
Earlier this month was the Loess Hills Cooperative Burn Week, an annual event sponsored by the Loess Hills Fire Partners. Burn Week provides partners with an opportunity to achieve fire management where additional skills and resources are needed to accomplish work at a landscape scale. It is also an opportunity to build relationships with partners, share knowledge and skills, and work within a more complex organizational structure than usual, using the Incident Command System.
This year's focus was on the southern Loess Hills and based out of Waubonsie State Park in Fremont County. Nearly 90 participants from nearly 40 organizations participated this year. While weather was not ideal for burning most days, several units were burned on Monday and Tuesday. When conditions did not allow for burning, participants did a variety of trainings and educational sessions both indoors and outdoors. Fortunately several of the partners were able to return to Waubonsie later in April to conduct the planned burn at the park.
Learn more about fire in Loess Hills prairies here and here. Check out the photos and videos below to see what this year's burns looked like.
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February 28-March 4, 2022 is Invasive Species Awareness Week, which is "an international event to raise awareness about invasive species, the threat that they pose, and what can be done to prevent their spread."
Iowa's landscape has many non-native plant and animals species that can wreak havoc on native plant & wildlife communities, as well as cause economic damage. Invasive species have varying levels of concern depending on their impacts. Some invasive species cause relatively few problems, while others can destroy native ecosystems. Some require action to avoid legal consequences, while others are more a concern to land managers working to restore prairies and savannas.
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), for example, is one species that can take over and shade out native prairie species, resulting in dense monocultures of coniferous trees where almost no other species can survive. Although they are actually native to the region, removing fire and grazing animals from the landscape has led to their proliferation in recent decades.
Smooth brome (Bromus inermis) is a grass that was planted in livestock pastures, along roadsides, on terraces and grassed waterways, and elsewhere across the Midwest. While it's not necessarily a problem in every site, it can be challenging to control in prairie restorations and reconstructions. If you have an area where you'd like to restore or create a prairie, you will need to manage the brome.
Crown vetch (Coronilla varia) is a non-native legume that was planted for erosion control and ground cover. It has physical similarities to native vetch species but should be eradicated. Reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) prefers wetter areas and has resemblance to some native grasses. These species are problematic in prairies and wetlands because they can crowd out native species.
In woodlands, garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is one of the most aggressive understory species. Like cedars, it can take over an area and prevent most other species from growing. Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) was planted as an ornamental and is one of the fastest-growing and -reproducing woody species around. Garlic mustard and tree of heaven can quickly take over a woodland and prevent native species from growing.
Some species are listed as noxious weeds and landowners have a legal obligation to remove them. If you have confirmed presence of noxious weeds on your land, you should take action to eradicate them. The links below have full listings of all invasive flora species in Iowa as well as fauna such as insects and aquatic species.
If you like the look of certain invasives, plant a native species with similar characteristics instead. Check out the Midwest Invasive Plant Network's Landscape Alternatives for Invasive Plants of the Midwest brochure and mobile app to help find native species.
Golden Hills is working with Dr. Tom Rosburg of Drake University on Common Weeds & Invasive Species virtual program on April 7. The class has a $10 fee for the live program. It will be recorded and posted on our website afterwards. Learn more and register here.
Here are several additional resources to learn more about invasive species in Iowa:
photos and text provided by Joe Connolly
Shelby County Trails was formed in 2012 and has a governing committee with members representing 10 communities in Shelby County, Iowa. Their mission is to promote building of trails to connect communities in Shelby County.
Their first major project is the Ballpark to Ballpark Trail which will run north/south between Panama and Portsmouth, Iowa. The name Ballpark to Ballpark Trail comes from the great baseball traditions of these communities. These rural communities have sponsored baseball teams for many, many years. Teams for young elementary students all the way to semi-pro town teams.
This trail is truly a “grass-roots” efforts. Nearly all funding has come from the local community. Phase I has been completed with no government funding. There have been a handful of small grants from private foundations; the remainder of funding has come from local efforts accomplished through various fundraisers including charity auctions, community breakfasts and direct contributions from community members. A local trucking company, Panama Transfer, has matched many contributions dollar for dollar.
The trail will start at the north end of Panama in Whispering Pines Park – just across State Highway 191 from the Panama ballpark. The eventual south end will be just past the Portsmouth Iowa ballpark about 7 miles away.
Phase I was completed this Fall. It includes a ½ mile of on street bike route through the town of Panama. Plus a section of off street trail extending a ½ mile to the south ending at County Road F32. This off street section running adjacent to State Highway 191.
Future construction will extend the off street trail another 6 miles to Portsmouth. This section will also run adjacent to State Highway 191. The ultimate goal is to extend the trail to Pottawattamie County where it will connect to trails in Council Bluffs and Omaha plus the Wabash Trace Nature Trail.
Here is a view of the off street trail looking south of Panama:
The off-street portion is paved with concrete and 10 feet wide. Here is a view looking south toward County Road F32. The road to the left is State Highway 191:
Here is a view north to the Panama City Limit:
State Highway 191 is known as Railway Avenue in Panama. The trail runs parallel to Railway Avenue at the south end of town. There is excellent on-trail and on-route signage.
Just before downtown Panama the trail moves to an on street bike route with directional signs to guide users through town.
The on street route takes users up Panama’s Historic Main Street. Panama has a population of 235 and a downtown which includes a bank, the Post Office, a Bar & Grill, a sit-down restaurant and a grocery store. Here is a view up Panama’s Main Street. The bike route runs through this business district:
The on-street route turns from Main Street onto Second Avenue. There is great signage on the on-street portion:
Once on Second Avenue the route passes the 100+ year old St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church:
Here is the north end of the trail where it enters Whispering Pines Park:
For additional information contact Dean Kloewer (712) 261-1408.
You can also follow Shelby County Trails on Facebook.
Last week we had the opportunity to visit the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' Prairie Resource Center (PRC). The PRC provides prairie seed to public lands (state wildlife areas and parks) across Iowa.
Their operations are primarily located at Brushy Creek State Recreation Area in Webster County, with additional facilities at North Central Correctional Facility in Calhoun County. Staff and volunteers visit remnant prairies in different parts of the state to harvest local ecotype seed. They then clean and store seed, and share it with public land managers within the respective eco-zones.
From DNR's PRC website: "A plan was devised to divide the state into 3 zones, the northern 3 tiers of counties, the central 3 tiers of counties and the southern 3 tiers of counties. (This plan is in synchronization with the Iowa Ecotype Project/University of Northern Iowa which works with private seed producers.) For instance, pale purple coneflower is harvested from several prairie remnants in the north zone. Seed is cleaned, grown into 4-6 inch plants in a greenhouse, and planted into a single-species, cultivated row with other plants from northern Iowa. Seed is collected by hand or by use of a small combine and returned to public land in northern Iowa. Native grass seed is collected, planted in larger field situations and harvested with a combine equipped with a unique rice-head stripper. This allows seed to be harvested yet the valuable residue remains as winter cover for a variety of wildlife species."
Map of Iowa's eco-zones:
Photos of some of the harvested seed to be cleaned:
A variety of equipment, both large and small, is used to remove seed from hulls, chaff, and other debris, The leftovers are kept separate and returned to fields to provide nutrients to the prairies.
An example of cleaned seed:
In addition to seed harvesting and cleaning, the Prairie Resource Center has a greenhouse where they grow native plants. Most of the plants are used in their seed plots. Seed plots provide an easy way to harvest specific species, planted in rows, versus searching through prairies to find one species and harvesting by hand.
Due to the scale of operations, the DNR uses tractors and combines for some seed harvest, in addition to hand-harvesting remnant prairies.
Below is an example of a seed spreader that is used to sow prairie seed.
Golden Hills would like to thank Laura Leben with DNR for providing the tour.
We recently received a Specialty Crop Block Grant entitled Perennial native seed production for rural resilience. With this project, we will be working with public and private landowners to establish native seed production plots. Project updates will be posted at goldenhillsrcd.org/prairieseed. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions about this project or the PRC visit.
Western Skies goes through four counties (from west to east: Harrison, Shelby, Audubon & Guthrie. The Byway Corridor includes all four counties, primarily along Highway 44 with a spur along Highway 173, a loop on F32 in Shelby County, with the western end on Highway 30 and the eastern end along P28. Located directly on the route are 12 incorporated communities: Missouri Valley, Logan, Woodbine, Portsmouth, Panama, Westphalia, Harlan, Kimballton, Elk Horn, Guthrie Center, Panora, and Stuart (from west to east).
With the early sunset and long nights, you may be hesitant to travel after dark. With proper precautions (watch for deer!), you can drive through any of these communities through the next couple weeks to see a variety of public Christmas and holiday light displays, Although it's technically a few miles off the Byway, we also recommend visiting Audubon to see the downtown area and Albert the Bull decked out for the holidays. In addition to many private residences and businesses. Most main street and downtown areas have lights and decorations that are visible from dusk 'til dawn. Check out the photos below for a few examples of what you can see (apologies for the poor quality; these were all taken with a phone...if you have photos you'd like to share, let us know).
The Guthrie Center display in Mitchell Park has a large drive-through display that even includes some moving light displays:
Take advantage of the unseasonably warm and dry weather and explore Western Skies Scenic Byway!
December 5th is recognized as World Soils Day. Iowa, perhaps more than any other state, owes its agricultural heritage and economy to some of the most fertile topsoil in the world. The dominant soil order across the region is called Mollisols (dark green in the below map). Mollisols are grassland soils that developed over centuries or millennia within prairie ecosystems.
Within the order of Mollisols, Udolls (green in the map below) are the predominant suborder:
Udolls align closely with the tallgrass prairie region, while Ustolls (another suborder of Mollisols) dominate the mixed- and short-grass prairies:
More than 99.9% of Iowa's tallgrass prairies have been destroyed by human development, and largely replaced with corn. Corn is a plant within the grass family, and like the many types of native grasses, it is well-adapted to thrive in the Udoll soils. The former tallgrass prairie is now aligned closely with the Corn Belt:
Iowa is divided into several soil regions (map below). In western Iowa, you've probably heard the term "loess" before. Besides the Missouri River Alluvium (14), which is floodplain soil on the flat bottoms of the Muddy Mo, most of the region is covered in a layer of loess. East of the alluvial plain are Missouri River Bluffs (13) and Very Deep Loess (12), which includes the Loess Hills landform. The Loess Hills are typically defined as having at least 60 feet of loess, though many of the bluffs adjacent to the Missouri floodplain are much deeper than that, even up to 200 feet deep.
Loess was deposited through aeolian processes (wind-driven), with prevailing westerly winds dropping the deepest soils closer to the Missouri River. Moving east, the depth of loess gradually decreases over southern Iowa. The Des Moines lobe was glaciated more recently and lacks this loess.
The depth of loess aligns closely with the EPA-designated ecoregions of Iowa. 47d (Missouri Alluvial Plain) is the same as soil region 14 above. Ecoregions 47m (Western Loess Hills) and 47e (Steeply Rolling Loess Prairies) are similar to soil regions 11 & 12.
In the map below, purple areas have Peoria Loess, and green areas are alluvial soils. Most of western Iowa is either purple or green. The Des Moines lobe stands out as not having loess deposits.
Loess is highly erodible. The maps below from USDA show how the deep loess soils of Iowa, along with the loess region of the Palouse in eastern Washington, have some of the worst soil erosion on the continent. Fortunately, however, conservation practices like terraces and grassed waterways have significantly reduced this erosion over the past 40 years.
While many people think of soil as just dirt, there are complex ecosystems living within it.
“Essentially, all life depends upon the soil… There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together” - Dr. Charles E Kellogg, Soil Scientist and Chief of the USDA’s Bureau for Chemistry and Soils.
Even if you don't farm or garden, the food you eat on a daily basis depends on healthy soils. If soil is treated "like dirt," these webs suffer and soil health declines.
Our agricultural economy, waterways, and wildlife also depend on soils to thrive. Historically, poor soil health has contributed to the collapse of entire civilizations. This is why President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself" following the Dust Bowl. Soil health is becoming increasingly important in agricultural discussions and we should not overlook the humble humus beneath our feet.
In September and October, Golden Hills had funding from The Gilchrist Foundation to continue our Prairie Seed Harvest project in the Loess Hills. We also have funding from Pottawattamie Conservation Foundation to do prairie seed harvest at Hitchcock Nature Center specifically. At each event, Project Coordinator Lance Brisbois provided a brief training on identifying species and ripe seed, then showed how to harvest the seed.
Through these events, we engaged more than nearly 100 volunteers of all ages totaling approximately 187 volunteer hours, worth well over $5,000 of time that would have otherwise been incurred by local conservation agencies with limited time and budgets. The seed we harvested was combined with seed purchased from other sources to be used on prairie restoration projects totaling several hundred acres.
All seed collected from state lands was donated to Iowa Department of Natural Resources staff per state regulations. Most seed collected from other areas was given back to local conservation agencies for their prairie restoration efforts. Golden Hills saved a small amount of seed (with written permission) from land owned by county conservation boards for native plant propagation in partnership with Iowa Western Community College. We will grow some of this seed in their greenhouse over the winter and host a native plant sale in spring 2022.
Some of the seed has also been saved by Golden Hills to start a small native seed bank. This seed will be stored long-term and added to each year, with the intent of growing a seed bank of local ecotype native species.
We thank all the volunteers who helped this year, and look forward to hosting more seed harvest events in 2022. Thank you to The Gilchrist Foundation and Pottawattamie Conservation Foundation for their financial support.
As part of this year's Giving Tuesday (November 30), we have a goal of 40 donors and $4,000 to support our Prairie Seed Harvest project. Learn more and donate here.
The Iowa Tourism Economic Impact Report was recently released, and it shows that even through the pandemic, tourism has been a major contributor to the state's economy. "The results of this study show the scope of the travel sector in terms of direct visitor spending, as well as the total economic impacts, jobs, and fiscal (tax) impacts in the broader economy." Even with a 29% drop in 2020, tourists' direct contribution to Iowa's economy was $4.6 Billion.
Because international travel was restricted and many people did not feel safe flying, more people chose to road trip closer to home. The pandemic also caused many people to choose more outdoorsy destinations and rural areas where they could easily distance, instead of more crowded cities and larger or indoor tourist attractions. In western Iowa, this has largely been beneficial since most of the communities are rural with abundant parks, trails, wildlife areas, and small towns & businesses.
Tourism is especially impactful along Iowa's Scenic Byways. Loess Hills National Scenic Byway runs through the 7 Loess Hills counties from Plymouth to Fremont. Western Skies Scenic Byway, which crosses the region west-to-east from Harrison to Guthrie counties, is a popular alternate route to Interstate 80 between Omaha and Des Moines. Glacial Trail Scenic Byway is a short loop that runs through Buena Vista, Cherokee, Clay, and O'Brien counties in northwest Iowa along the Little Sioux River valley. Data for these Byway counties from the tourism report is summarized below.
Note that Harrison County is included on both Loess Hills and Western Skies, as both byways run through the county.
Not all of the economic impacts are directly from Byway travelers only, but the counties are considered part of the Byway Corridors and thus the data include significant overlap. Golden Hills is proud to coordinate these three byways and all that they contribute to the region.