Loess is More
Visiting Green Hill Ranch for the first time, Graham McGaffin said the property’s expansiveness struck him. “It can be difficult to imagine the scope of a place [like this].”
“It’s the southern Loess Hills, so it’s steep. And five hundred acres is big, but it feels bigger,” says McGaffin.
As Loess Hills Project Director for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Iowa, McGaffin is plenty familiar with the scale of the region — from terraces lining hillsides to razor-edged prairie ridgetops that stretch for miles. The scenery is breathtaking, with vistas unlike those found anywhere else in the world.
Green Hill Ranch is 506 acres of classic Loess Hills topography — peak-and-saddle cascading hills, oak savanna and pockets of remnant prairie. The protection of Green Hill Ranch is a milestone for both INHF and TNC, who have partnered for the first time in this way to protect it, and is a destination in waiting for Iowans to explore and wander.
“You come off the highway and you don’t even see half the property. You climb up, and there’s an oak-lined ridgetop. From there, you can see Folsom Point, and then beyond Folsom Point, the skyscrapers of Omaha,” said McGaffin.
“You have that awareness, that you are where you are — I mean, there’s 900,000 people just there. But then, if you turn and look out to the east, there’s this steep valley; it catches you off guard. There’s a 75-foot drop, and suddenly you’re in a valley with a spring. You’re totally secluded.”
Standing there for the first time, McGaffin said, “The vision that came to me was, ‘Wow, this could be really cool as public land.’ This could give people — if they’re hunting, hiking or birding — seclusion and an opportunity to get away from it all. You feel miles away from the highway and the metro.”
In reality, Green Hill Ranch is only a few minutes drive from Council Bluffs. Split between Pottawattamie and Mills counties in southwestern Iowa, the 506-acre property follows the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway for nearly two miles, along one of its most-traveled stretches. It’s an area familiar to INHF for protection. Across the road is TNC’s Folsom Point Preserve, which protects one of the largest remaining contiguous prairie remnants in the southern Loess Hills. Together, Green Hill Ranch and Folsom Point protect nearly 800 acres of natural land and wildlife habitat.
However, the size of Green Hill Ranch and its proximity to Council Bluffs presented an obstacle: a price tag of $2.8 million.
In November 2016, Heather Jobst, INHF senior land conservation director, and McGaffin took advantage of a clear, mild day to visit the property together. “We walked the property for a few hours and talked about how we could make this happen,” McGaffin remembered. For Jobst, the decision was simple. “Being there, deciding to protect it was obvious.”
Both knew protecting Green Hill Ranch alone would be very difficult. But together, INHF and TNC knew protecting the special natural area would be possible.
Protecting Green Hill Ranch required something entirely new for both INHF and TNC. In June 2017, both organizations purchased the property together. The property will eventually be transferred to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (Iowa DNR) for ownership, management and public benefit. INHF and TNC are equal partners in the project, telling Green Hill Ranch’s story and pursuing grants and fundraising opportunities both individually and in concert.
“Our relationship as the two largest private conservation organizations in Iowa has really grown over the years, and we saw this as the next step in the evolution of that relationship: to be joint partners on a project,” said McGaffin. Jobst agreed: “INHF and TNC have supported and worked together in the past, but never exactly like this — full protection partners.”
The Iowa DNR is another key partner in the project — they will eventually accept ownership and management of the property once fundraising is complete. While INHF often works like this with the Iowa DNR, this is the first such collaboration between TNC and the Iowa DNR.
With the Iowa DNR taking the lead, Pottawattamie and Mills county conservation boards will also take on active roles in the restoration of Green Hill Ranch. Currently the property contains cropland and pasture, with pockets of oak woodland, savanna and remnant prairie remaining. Matt Dollison, Nishnabotna Wildlife Unit Biologist for the Iowa DNR, will oversee the restoration work. “Our first step will be to get prescribed fire on it, late in the spring,” he said. “We’ll use that tool to see what’s out there in terms of prairie remnant restoration potential.”
Once in public ownership, all partners agree that Green Hill Ranch will be a truly incredible resource for Iowans — particularly those in the Council Bluffs area, where the community is eager for more opportunities to get outdoors. Right now, only 518 acres of public land are available to nearby residents — an area the protection of Green Hill Ranch will nearly double.
“We talk a lot about getting people outdoors, and I think it’s important that we look at how we’re increasing opportunities for people to do that,” said Jobst. “In order to do a land protection project of this scale in Iowa, partnership is critical. We’ve built strong partnerships over time — and they turn into more than partnerships, they’re relationships. It’s that history of trust that makes this possible.”
You can help.
Pledges or donations to restore and protect Green Hill Ranch can be directed to INHF.
Donate online or contact Abby Hade Terpstra at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-288-1846 with any questions about support or recognition.
More than half the needed funds have already been raised. Thanks to those providing major support, including the Iowa West Foundation, state and federal grants and sportsperson fees that support habitat protection.