Lending a hand for the land

By Erica Place on June 26, 2023 in Blog

Lending a hand for the land volunteers collecting seeds

Not surprisingly for an organization whose mission centers on protecting and restoring Iowa’s natural resources, many of Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation’s volunteer projects take place outdoors. Projects on the land are by far INHF’s most numerous and most popular way in which we engage with volunteers. While much of INHF’s land stewardship is amplified through groups and individuals lending their time and talents, the impact is much greater than that.

Structured workdays quickly became a staple of INHF’s volunteer program following their debut in 2013. Nearly all these public events require no prior experience and supplies are provided, making them great options for individuals, families or corporate groups to lend a hand for the land. Projects often coincide with nature-related events like Earth Day or National Trails Day, but most often they align with windows of opportunity for certain restoration goals. Pulling garlic mustard — a plant invading Iowa’s woodlands — is an effective management method for only a few weeks each spring. Prescribed fire — an important tool in our restoration toolbox that requires many hands — can only be done during specific environmental and weather conditions that can be hard to predict far in advance. Some machine-harvested prairie seed mixes — collected in the fall — are incomplete without the seeds of long-gone early bloomers, and so must be supplemented with seeds carefully hand-harvested in the summer heat. Other prairies are only hand-harvested, taking just the seeds with the understanding that the stems and stalks will be important winter cover in a few months. The natural rhythms that dictate our work also provide opportunity to make connections with the world around us, and INHF staff work to weave those lessons into each workday.

“My soul always feels better after I’ve been out doing this kind of thing,” said David Behrens while volunteering at a recent brush removal workday at Snyder Heritage Farm. “It does wildlife good. It does us people good.”

Some events involve other partners, like collaborative workdays with Pheasants Forever chapters or county conservation departments. At the UPCYCLE series held every summer at Gray’s Lake in Des Moines, multiple entities come together to lead volunteers in removing invasive plants, benefiting the woodland, fostering community connections and resulting in lots of cut vegetation for browse and enrichment for animals at the Blank Park Zoo. Another event series, held annually since 2013 at a property in Boone County, brings graduate students in the Natural Resource Ecology and Management program at Iowa State University back to the same spot to continue prairie restoration started by their predecessors. Despite individual students being in the program for a short time, word of the workday is passed down as a meaningful and educational experience that should be continued. Collaborative events like these provide a lift for all parties, including the land.

UPCYCLE Volunteer group picture

INHF volunteers extend our mission statewide. Volunteers who participate in organized group workdays like the UPCYCLE events, pictured above, substantially supplement our staff’s work.

Events often serve as a conduit, building confidence and skills that move people along the continuum towards roles with increased involvement and responsibility. INHF’s Land Ambassador program — started in 2016 — is full of people who first connected with INHF through a public event and wanted to do more.

“Being a Land Ambassador helps fulfill a long-held desire to be connected to the land,” explains Jeff Jutting, Land Ambassador at Perkins Prairie Preserve in Greene County since 2017. “Each prairie remnant is a beacon of hope for a sustainable future. Helping to keep Perkins Prairie Preserve healthy is my contribution to that future.”

Land Ambassadors make a year-long commitment to assist INHF as the “eyes and ears” of a designated piece of land, agreeing to regular visits with the option to also partake in tasks like species inventory, photography or habitat restoration. The variety of potential tasks attracts many different motivations.

Volunteers Jeff Jutting and David Brady assist with a prescribed burn.For Jutting, pictured left, his time on the prairie not only connects him to nature, but to his family. His work honors the memory of his late son Chris, who held degrees in Environmental Science and Geology, noting that, “When I’m on the prairie, he is always right next to me.” Jutting’s four grandsons also accompany him in prairie work, learning to love the land just like he does.

Some Land Ambassadors, like those assigned to Kothenbeutel Prairie in Franklin County, are organizing and leading their own monthly public workdays, recruiting additional volunteers to help with INHF-directed land stewardship.

“It has given me the opportunity to connect with people who are likeminded and who care about the prairie and the land in my direct area, as well as an opportunity to continue to learn,” explains Caitlin Golle, one of the Land Ambassadors for Kothenbeutel Prairie. “We all have a different perspective about what’s valuable about the land and the little treasures hidden within it.”

Bringing others into our work is what it’s all about — you can’t care about what you haven’t experienced. Attendees of a tree planting workday can return later and see that they are responsible for shade, cover and food. Volunteers who remove invasive honeysuckle can see the fruits of their labor marked by blooming wildflowers on the woodland floor the next spring. Those who collect seeds can observe all the life using the prairie they helped create. They make connections between themselves and the natural world, and they begin to care; to gain a sense of ownership and responsibility. Advocates for Iowa’s land, water and wildlife are created.