Floating south on the Middle Raccoon River, the gentle water trail meanders through the Whiterock valley, opening overhead to oak branches outstretched toward ancient bluffs, with prairie and rolling farmland dotting the surrounding land. This valley is part of one of the largest conservation visions in Iowa: A private oasis, open for public use, mixing protection and agriculture in one 5,500 acre area.
Compiled piece by piece out of the Garst family’s love for the land, Whiterock Conservancy is nearly 5,500 acres just outside Coon Rapids, a little over an hour west of Des Moines. The Garst family has owned land in the Middle Raccoon valley since 1882, building their ever-evolving complex of agricultural and natural land through generations. Whiterock’s current iteration, of which 4,200 contiguous acres are open to the public, is owned and protected by a nonprofit organization created in 2004 by the five Garst sisters, great- granddaughters of the original landowner, and their mother Mary. It’s a massive preserve of natural features and recreation opportunities ripe for discovery.
A family affair
Edward Garst settled in the region in the late 1800s, opening the area’s first general store. Roswell, his son, built a popular hybrid seed company out of Coon Rapids and Roswell’s son Stephen expanded his father’s farm piece by piece as others moved out of the valley. Stephen had five daughters and one son, whom helped the family expand the farm again during the 1980s. The land they purchased is still a part of Whiterock Conservancy today.
The oldest of the five sisters, Liz Garst grew up on the family land and is now the Garst Family Business Manager. She says her family’s connection to the land built Whiterock to what it is today.
“Everyone in the family has really loved this land that is now Whiterock,” said Liz. “When my father’s estate had to be dealt with, we decided ‘let’s go ahead and make sure this gets protected.’ There are very few parcels of land in Iowa in a contiguous block as big as Whiterock. This is meant to be public.”
The most recent land addition to Whiterock has been within the past decade. The organization, also called Whiterock Conservancy, has grown to eight full-time employees and a board of directors. Altogether, Whiterock Conservancy aims to maintain the Garst legacy of balancing natural resource protection, sustainable agriculture and public recreation.
For natural benefit
Whiterock Conservancy is named after a roughly 90 million-year-old cretaceous Dakota sandstone bluff that juts up in the middle of the valley. This irregularly-shaped outcropping contains fossils from the last cretaceous period, making Whiterock a snapshot of the state’s natural history.
“One of my favorite phrases to promote Coon Rapids is: ‘The last glacier stopped here, so should you,’” says Liz.
The large size of Whiterock Conservancy is home to a wide variety of protected habitats. Straddling two landforms — the Southern Driftplain and the Prairie pothole regions — Whiterock Conservancy has prairies, wetland seeps, oak savannas, rocky bluffs, working agricultural land and eight miles of the Middle Raccoon River cutting through it.
From Bald eagles, Barn owls and Blanding’s turtles to Flying squirrels, Whiterock Conservancy is a refuge for many of Iowa’s most threatened species, as determined by the Iowa Wildlife Action Plan.
“At least 53 of Iowa’s 67 breeding bird species with greatest conservation need have been documented at Whiterock Conservancy,” said Penny Perkins, naturalist at Whiterock Conservancy. “Whiterock is also home to 3 of the 19 mammals identified as species of greatest conservation need and at least 5 of the 18 migratory birds of greatest conservation need.”
Whiterock has been an active restoration site for decades, employing land stewardship techniques that mimic historic natural processes, including on one of the largest active oak savanna restoration sites in the state. “Oak savanna is Iowa’s most endangered habitat type, rarer than prairie and wetlands,” said Liz. “We’re doing restoration on what was originally oak savanna habitat, and at scale. This is a big project, and fire is a major part of what we do here. We burn something like 1,500 acres a year.”
An integral part of Whiterock’s mission from the beginning, sustainable agriculture is still at the forefront of Whiterock’s use today. Alongside native and restored natural landscapes, Whiterock strives to set a statewide example of responsible, innovative agriculture existing in tandem with conservation and recreation.
Visitors can take a stroll by the prairie strips, learn about varieties of cover crops, or picnic on a pasture with intentionally diverse grass mixtures. And with herds of bison, cows and goats, Whiterock Conservancy has been a touchstone for demonstrations and education regarding high intensity rotational grazing.
“It’s the boldest vision for what Iowa could be again,” said Ryan Hanser, board member at Whiterock Conservancy. “The idea that commercial production agriculture could coexist with an effort to create sustainability and ecological integrity. To do habitat work right on top of working lands to me is the most meaningful dichotomy out there. I don’t think they’re polar.”
Welcoming Iowans to Whiterock
Maybe the boldest part of Whiterock’s mission is encouraging all Iowans to explore the valley to learn, recharge and discover in Iowa’s outdoors. With a myriad of recreational opportunities from biking, paddling, hiking, horseback riding, fishing and varied accomodations including campsites, cabin rentals and a farmhouse-turned-inn, any recreationist is bound to find a home away from home at Whiterock.
Nearly 40 miles of hiking, biking, horse and ATV trails exist and are maintained at Whiterock, creating opportunity to see all of the area’s unique landscapes. And the wonder extends beyond daylight hours — as one of the darkest places in Iowa, Whiterock is host to the Iowa Star Party and many stargazers hoping to catch a glimpse of meteor showers and the Milky Way.
The River House Barn at Whiterock, which used to hold dance parties during prohibition, now hosts weddings and events. From the gardens near the barn, you can see all that Whiterock Conservancy has to offer, from geologic time, human relaxation, agriculture fields in the distance and roaming wildlife.
“The promise of [Whiterock] is really only fulfilled when people will go there and touch it, know that it’s real. Take its lessons and make them true elsewhere,” says Hanser.
Protection into the future
The story of Whiterock is long and ever-evolving, but the Garsts are happy knowing their family land is protected for innovation and public use beyond their lifetimes. Guided with help from former Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation president Mark Ackelson, the Garst sisters worked with INHF to protect the original pieces of Whiterock Conservacy and create the nonprofit that now owns and manages the entire area.
“We feel glad that the land will be protected and kept together,” said Liz. “We knew it’s bigger and more important than we are. It deserves to live.”