Iowa Great Lakes
Photo courtesy of David Thoreson
People have long flocked to the Iowa Great Lakes to dive into the blue water and marvel at the largest set of natural lakes in Iowa.
Whether it’s West Okoboji, Big Spirit, East Okoboji, Upper Gar, Lower Gar or Minnewashta, “the Lakes” as they are often referred to, hold a special place in the hearts and minds of Iowans, many whose families have been coming here for generations.
Like many Iowans, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation’s (INHF) roots at the Lakes run deep. Over nearly four decades, INHF and its partners have protected 5,800 acres in Dickinson County, and established a regional system of trails. INHF has taken on several new, high-profile land protection projects this year, many of which have led INHF to deepen its connection to this special place and the community of people committed to protecting it.
Big protection on Big Spirit
INHF’s recent purchase of three parcels adjacent to existing public lands – plus the 2018 purchase of the 160-acre Wallace & Bowers Nature Area – ensure that conservation will always be a priority on land near the north shore of Big Spirit Lake.
Collectively known as the North Shore Project, these 48 acres – along with the public and privately protected lands they link – create one of the largest contiguous stretches of protected land along any of the Iowa Great Lakes.
Because Big Spirit provides drinking water to 5,600 people, a conservation buffer near the lake has extra, long-term importance, though the benefits provided by these lands extend well beyond Big Spirit and the surrounding towns.
“Because of its position at the top of the Lakes, this conservation zone has the potential to help clean the water not only around Big Spirit Lake, but for all those who visit and live at the Lakes,” said INHF Vice President Anita O’Gara.
INHF purchased the North Shore Project from extended family members involved in the Bartels, Bartels & Fox LP in 2019. The family, which has owned land in the area since 1866, chose to sell the three parcels to INHF for conservation. INHF is now in the beginning phases of exploring how prairie and wetlands can be restored on the land in ways that offer the greatest benefit for water quality. Funding for the project and future ownership are under consideration.
Restoration continues on the neighboring Wallace & Bowers Nature Area, the largest property in the complex of INHF-protected land on the north side of Big Spirit Lake, which was purchased in partnership with the Wallace and Bowers families.
Together, INHF and Dickinson County farmers and tenants Jake and Gary Johnson are realizing a shared vision for the land that includes restorative farming, a way of farming that keeps the health of the soil and the Lakes at the forefront.
Thanks to this family – third-generation farming tenants on this land – restorative farming practices including no-till, cover crops or buffer strips have been applied to every acre of its crop ground. In 2019, a 10-acre prairie strip was planted along the south boundary using native seed sourced entirely from Dickinson County. While the prairie continues to take root over the next few years, a 50- acre alfalfa buffer is actively working to slow and absorb water runoff before it can reach Big Spirit Lake. A seven-acre wetland will be restored in the northwest corner to catch and store water, which will provide native habitat and remove nutrients before they enter the chain of lakes.
“This is why I do it,” said Jake, holding up his 2-year-old son Leroy, at a field day INHF co-sponsored as part of the annual Iowa Prairie Lakes Conference last summer. The event brought together farmers, neighbors, community members, conservationists and others to learn from, share knowledge and connect with one another.
“Iowa's soil and water are arguably our most valuable natural and economic resources. Clean water and sound land stewardship are critical to making the Okoboji region a great place to live, work and play,” said Greg Grupp, an INHF board member and Lakes local who attended the field day and volunteers at the site.
“We are proud of our partnership with Jake and Gary and grateful to all the Johnsons for their innovation, agility and shared love of the land,” said INHF President Joe McGovern. “Though still in its early phases, this project can serve as a model for what is possible when conservation and agriculture work together.”
South of Big Spirit, INHF is partnering with the Dickinson County Conservation Board (DCCB) to create a conservation easement that will provide permanent protection from future development in the heart of the Lakes.
The project lies on land situated between East and West Lake Okoboji within Okoboji city limits. It is near other beloved outdoor areas including the Spine Trail, Kenue Park and the Dickinson County Nature Center complex, as well as other private lands protected by INHF-held conservation easements. Together, these lands create a place for nature and expanded access for people to experience it.
The Dickinson County Conservation Board (DCCB) received an anonymous donation to purchase and protect the 230-acre Brooks Golf Course from future commercial and residential development in 2019. A local icon with 27 holes, nine of which are surrounded by prairie, the popular course offers open green space in an otherwise densely populated part of the Lakes.
Public comments from a meeting DCCB hosted last June indicated the golf community is open to creative ways to add nature interpretation and access for activities such as birding, cross-country skiing and running the grass perimeter to the course. DCCB is updating the golf management contract as they look for ways to bring more nature-based experiences to this land. DCCB finalized the conservation easement, which will be held by INHF, earlier this month
Just north of the golf course is another INHF-held conservation easement with DCCB where the Dickinson County Nature Center now stands. Covering 17 acres, DCCB and INHF worked together to protect this corner of Kenue Park in 2009 before the nature center was built. The property stretches from Nature Center Road back to the northern edge of DCCB’s wetland area. DCCB is now able to ensure the property will be used for wildlife habitat, open space recreation and outdoor education forever.
“Together, the Brooks and Kenue Park conservation easements ensure that lands near the Dickinson County Nature Center and other popular public lands remain as open-space forever,” said Conservation Easement Director Erin Van Waus.
At home at the Lakes
Just as nature is continually evolving, so too are the ways INHF protects, restores and stewards land. Projects in the Iowa Great Lakes are no exception.
From partnering with landowners to protect private lands, to working with local conservation and recreation groups to create public parks, trails and other natural areas, the ways INHF has worked with local partners has varied greatly over the years. That work will continue and expand as INHF looks at long-term ownership and stewardship of select properties.
INHF currently owns and will continue to care for three properties at the Lakes: Wallace & Bowers Nature Area; Green Pastures, 163 acres of restored wetlands, grasslands and several remnant prairie knobs in a highly developed area near West Lake Okoboji donated by Ann and Sig Anderson; and Wheeler Woods, 15 acres of woodland and 266 feet of undeveloped shoreline on West Lake Okoboji donated by Lois Morgan.
“Our decision to own land is a reflection of what we’ve been hearing from our friends at the Lakes who want to see more of the area permanently protected,” McGovern said. “We have gained the capacity to manage land in a way that lives up to the expectations that come with long-term ownership.”
The local vision, leadership and enthusiasm for protecting the Lakes have been as unique and special as the lakes themselves. No matter who is leading a project, there is never a shortage of people willing to step in and help.
“This is the place that people seem to come together and work toward a common goal without question. There are over 80 partner organizations that I work with through the Clean Water Alliance, and those partners all feel a need to be part of the answer,” said John Wills, environmental coordinator at Dickinson Soil and Water Conservation District and a state legislator.
“In my memory, we’ve never been more present to the people and needs at the Iowa Great Lakes,” O’Gara said. “Our vision is to continue to help people take action. The needs of the Lakes will change over time, but INHF will always be there, ready to support those who seek to know and protect this special place.”