Generations of Love for the Lakes
"This lake was in his family blood, back to his great-grandparents,” Linda Phelps said about her late husband, George’s, connection to West Okoboji Lake.
George’s great-grandfather bought a home on the lake in the early 1900s, and his grandfather, Robert Wylie, was one of the University of Iowa faculty that helped to establish the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory (Lakeside Lab) on the lake’s west shore for “the study of nature in nature.”
George’s mother, Helen, spent every summer of her childhood at the Lakeside Lab. That is where she met her future husband, Floyd, while he was studying there. Helen and Floyd raised George and his siblings in Kingsley, Iowa but each summer, they returned to the lake.
“He grew up at the Great Lakes,” Linda said. “He loved plants and nature. Maybe that love was passed down to him.”
After graduating from Cornell College, being drafted by the Denver Broncos and later earning a masters degree in business administration from the University of Iowa, George returned to Kingsley. There he helped his brother, Bob, reorganize the private Oltmann and Phelps Bank into a state-chartered bank that later became Kingsley State Bank. George worked as a chief executive officer there until his retirement in October 2018.
While his professional focus was in banking, nature remained close to George’s heart. He served on the Plymouth County Conservation board, and George and Linda owned a home in the same neighborhood as the Lakeside Lab.
When 85 acres of cropland went up for sale not far from their lake house in 2011, George and Linda purchased it with plans to someday restore it for water quality purposes. It was Goerge's wish that the property by donated to Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF). Following George’s death in August of 2019, Linda and their son David, also of Kingsley, completed the donation.
“He loved that property. He watched the corn grow, watched the water movement, looked for erosion,” Linda said. “He started visiting native prairies more. George kept most of his thoughts to himself, but I know he was thinking how this land might become his legacy to the Lakes.”
The property will be known as the George Wylie Phelps Wildlife Area, and INHF will be responsible for its protection and restoration. By restoring wetlands and managing the land for wildlife, this land will help improve soil health and lake water quality.
Directly to the west of the site is the West Okoboji Wetlands Complex, owned by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. INHF partnered with the DNR to protect and restore this complex about 10 years ago. The restoration of this 350-acre complex led to an almost 90 percent reduction in sediment and phosphorus and 70 percent reduction in nitrates going into West Lake Okoboji.
Bordering the Phelps site to the north is Okoboji View Golf Course. In 2012, INHF provided technical assistance for restoration of three wetland basins on the golf course, further improving water quality flowing into the lake and creating more wildlife habitat. DNR also holds a conservation easement on the 17-acre site of the golf course restoration, ensuring its permanent protection.
“The donation shows that the Phelps are truly looking out for their neighbors, and looking out for the lake,” said Heather Jobst, INHF senior land conservation director. “Restoration of the natural wetland sites on the Phelps Wildlife Area will help us build on the complex of protected natural land around it. All of these things benefit the water quality of West Okoboji Lake. They also ensure open space and scenic beauty in an area that could see increased development pressure.”
Linda said that George often thought of the well-being of other people in the community, and was generous, often choosing to remain anonymous. Protecting this land is another way he’s helping his neighbors and looking out for future generations, similar to the way his grandfather was looking to the future when he helped established Lakeside Lab all those years ago.
Situated in a complex of protected land that has had a profound effect on the water quality of West Okoboji Lake, the George Wylie Phelps Wildlife Area is critical to the ongoing improvement of water quality in the Iowa Great Lakes.