Investing in the Outdoors
Golden-hued prairies, shimmering silver lakes and wilding trails are supposed to be an escape from everyday worries, not an investment opportunity. However — especially in Iowa — they have the potential to be both.
Projects for the public good such as parks, trails and camping grounds have up to a 300% return on investment, increasing economic development and the quality of life in Iowa communities.
Many of the grants that make those projects possible, including the Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) program, aren’t fully funded by the state legislature, meaning Iowans miss out on valuable recreational and economic opportunities. With proper funding and support, local-led, shovel-ready projects like those highlighted here can make their communities a better place.
Since 2013, there’s been a nine-mile gap between the Raccoon River Valley Trail and High Trestle Trail, and Dallas County Conservation (DCC) is working to close it. Connecting two of the most popular trails in central Iowa would increase recreation opportunities and boost traffic to local businesses in Woodward and Perry, the connector’s trailheads, as well as other communities along the 86-mile and 118-mile loops it’ll create.
“Connecting two major trail networks opens the door for thousands of people to come through these towns,” said DCC Director Mike Wallace. “If they’re there, they spend money.”
DCC has applied for State and Federal Recreational Trails Program grants and REAP grants, and is working with local foundations in the community and the Racoon River Valley Trail Association to fundraise for the project. Through these efforts, they’ve finally secured the funding to build three miles of trail in the past three years. Additional dollars for state recreation would help move this and other critical trails project closer to completion.
Hardin County Conservation (HCC) has a vision for revamping an old boat club on the Iowa River in Steamboat Rock into a weekend destination, but, as is often the case with these types of projects, funding availability is their biggest obstacle.
“There’s a lot of demand for these recreation projects in rural communities that are trying to stay alive and current,” said HCC Director Wes Wiese. “Funding gets hit hard.”
When finished, the community will have a new event space, cabins and a campground, as well as space for a food vendor, boat rentals and a new bathhouse. The project ties in with the fledgling Iowa Rivers Edge Trail and the Iowa Department of Natural Resource’s recent removal of the nearby low-head dam on the river. Removing the dam improved fishing, paddling and all-around water quality, creating quality weekend getaway opportunities for Hardin County residents and visitors alike.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in cabin and campground rentals,” Wiese said. “People are looking for recreation [this past year] after being cooped up for so long, so this project will be a huge asset.”
Pioneer Trail is a 30-year work-in-progress. Most of the land for the 12-mile limestone trail from Reinbeck to Holland was painstakingly acquired by Grundy County Conservation (GCC) with Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation’s help when the project began, but several stretches along the route remain in private ownership, leaving gaps in the trail that left the county seat, Grundy Center, out of the loop.
“We want to take our longest trail and make it accessible to our largest population,” said GCC Director Kevin Williams.
In 2021, GCC hired a consulting firm to help finish the trail by building along the highway. They plan to close two half-mile gaps by adding trails to bridges across the highway—a creative solution, but an expensive pursuit.
Connecting Grundy Center, Grundy County’s most populous city, with the trail would bring people from all over the county to Grundy Center’s downtown area, diversifying economic development opportunities. It would also expand access to the many natural areas along the existing trail including Holland Marsh, a 46-acre wetland, and Wolfe Family Preserve.
Fully funding state programs like REAP, the State Recreational Trails Program and the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund would help these communities realize their vision sooner and bring much-needed economic development to these rural areas.
If Iowa invests in these programs, we’ll reap the benefits for years to come. Visit inhf.org/what-we-do/conservation-policy/natures-advocate to identify your legislator and talk to them about funding recreation projects you’re excited about.