One hundred fifty years ago, our homesteading great grandparents set in motion changes that slowly and persistently led to the transformation of Iowa's sea of rolling prairie into the landscape we see today.
Determined settlers plowed under the prairie sod on the uplands to grow crops, while hillsides and wetlands were more likely to become pasture or hay. Historical photos of the Little Sioux River Valley record open, grassy hillsides and floodplains where the prairie once tickled the bellies of bison.
Over time, technology and innovation, as well as market demands, have changed farming practices, idling some of these non-croplands while increasing the workload on others, causing natural succession to proceed in a changed environment.
Most notably, the absence of frequent fires and large bison herds, along with a more rainy and humid climate, have encouraged brush and trees where grasses and flowers once dominated. Early surveyor's notes for Cherokee County describe a few distinct woodland groves dominated by mature bur oak trees that tapered off into the vast prairie.
Today, so little of the open oak groves (savannas) and prairie remain, it has become a high priority for conservation agencies and organizations to restore and protect each precious remnant.
In the Spring of 2010, the Cherokee County Conservation Board (CCCB) signed an agreement with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that provides funds to restore 25 acres of prairie and oak savanna on public lands in northern Cherokee County.
Aerial photos from the 1930s through 1960s were used to identify specific locations where brush and trees have overtaken prairie that was never plowed or developed. Three of these areas identified in Martin's Access Park have recently undergone a rapid change in appearance.
Using equipment designed for this purpose, a private contractor worked with CCCB staff to remove all of the "woody" growth in specific areas, from weedy buckthorn and honeysuckle shrubs, to giant elm and ash trees.
Among the casualties were bitternut hickory and walnut trees, hackberries and box elders, cedar, sumac and plum thickets. The look of these hillsides, after the work was complete and the machines had been trucked away, was something like a war zone.
This method of clear cutting degraded prairies is a fast-forward approach to bringing back the beautiful native grasses and flowers of the past. Some of the cleared areas will spring back quickly with species that have been suppressed by the shade and leaf litter.
Others will require more time and special attention to control unwanted plants such as thistle and burdock, as well as the re-growth of the brush and trees. The CCCB is committed to completion of the long-term process of restoration, and is excited to watch the transformation begin.
Rather than let all of the downed trees go to waste, the CCCB staff will issue free Firewood Salvage Permits beginning Monday, Oct. 25.
Firewood removal will be for personal use only, not for resale, and will be restricted to wood on the ground, and will only be accessible from park roads.
Permits will be valid until Nov. 30 or until the park gates are closed due to winter weather, whichever comes first. The permit must be displayed on the dashboard of the firewood cutter's vehicle, and will be subject to inspection by CCCB staff.
To obtain a permit, contact Ginger Walker, CCCB Director, at 712-225-6709, or by email