For the past 50 years, Robert McCarthy’s property in southern Dubuque County has been another rectangle in the patchwork of agricultural land that dominates Iowa’s landscape. Historic 2020 ended with a new beginning for his 100 acres.
McCarthy first spoke with Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) more than a decade ago about his desire to see the land restored to its natural state for recreational use, and his intentions to bequeath the land to INHF to carry out his vision. Now, nearly eight years after McCarthy’s passing, INHF is partnering with Dubuque County Conservation (DCC), which will own and steward the land long-term.
DCC Director Brian Preston has big plans for the property, at the heart of which lies an ambitious prairie planting.
“It’s not very often that you get to start with a blank slate,” said Preston. “It’s really exciting for our staff to have a hand in a project that’s going to have a huge impact.”
Land and legacy
McCarthy wrote in his will that the land “shall not be cultivated and shall be left to grow wild in its natural state,” envisioning a place welcome to “hikers, hunters and horseback riders.”
Carrying out McCarthy’s vision will be one of DCC’s most ambitous restoration projects to date — it’s the largest prairie they have planted in one place in a single year. It’s an exciting challenge, and Preston worked with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to develop a robust restoration plan. Historically, native prairie dominated this area, and DCC will follow nature’s framework by planting 92 native prairie species.
DCC’s biggest obstacle is ensuring the initial seeding is successful. They plan to employ several different techniques, including cross-seeding (where half the seeds are drilled one way and the other half at a 45-degree angle). Ongoing management over the next couple of years will include mowing three times a year and conducting seasonal prescribed burns. Preston anticipates the prairie should bloom for the first time in 2023.
“It’s going to be a hundred-acre jewel of a prairie,” he said.
The costs of the transfer and restoration are also being supported by the Dubuque County Conservation Society, Dubuqueland Pheasants Forever and the Friends of the Dubuque County Conservation Board.
Beauty aside, this natural prairie will provide significant ecological benefits. It will filter and reduce runoff from surrounding properties and help re-establish the hydrologic cycle in the area. The prairie will also serve as a new habitat for native species such as eastern meadowlarks and bobolinks.
“This may be a small little patch in an otherwise ag-dominated area, but it doesn’t mean the birds won’t find it,” said INHF Land Projects Director Ross Baxter. “The birds always find it.”
The birds may find it, but will the people? Preston said many in the community are “nervous about the prairie,” but he’s hopeful that the opportunity to experience its beauty and benefits first-hand will put any apprehension at ease, and even inspire others.
“This is a great opportunity for folks to see a prairie and encourage them to do this on their own property,” Preston said.
In defense of the land
The realization of McCarthy’s vision was not without obstacle. McCarthy had several conversations with INHF staff about his wishes for the restoration and public use of his land, during which he indicated the land would be bequeathed to INHF for that purpose. It was these conversations that led INHF to defend what it believed to be McCarthy’s earnest intention for the land in a dispute over ownership in the months after his death, a position that was upheld in court.
Per McCarthy’s wishes, the land remained in trust to benefit his brother, Gerald, until his passing in December 2020, at which point it came to INHF to be protected and restored.
“Deciding the future of land is an emotional decision,” said INHF Director of Philanthropy Abby Terpstra. “When people take the time to discuss their hopes and dreams with us, we feel a great sense of obligation.”
McCarthy is the latest in a historic line of donors who envisioned a bright future for their land. INHF will continue to honor these bequests by protecting their land, one jewel at a time.