Looking out for Okoboji
A family's protection around West Lake Okoboji is one of INHF's most significant projects yet — and an amazing treasure for all Iowans.
Standing on the shore of West Lake Okoboji looking out over the water, you can still imagine it: the lake as it would have been in 1944. You can practically see the water stretching out before you, vast and uninterrupted but for a few small boats. The shoreline dotted with a sparse collection of cottages. Pastures and fields spanning wide gaps between the trees.
This is how Ann Anderson remembers those early days at Green Pastures, her 163 acres located just beyond the trees near Haywards Bay on the northeastern side of the lake. Of course, much has changed since that time. But for Ann and countless other Iowans, the pull of the place remains the same. And now, thanks to Ann and her husband Sigurd’s gift to Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, it will be permanently protected.
“People need a place to go where they feel restored,” said Ann, a founding INHF board member and long-time INHF advisor. “For me, that place is Green Pastures.”
A place on the lake
Green Pastures is located within Okoboji city limits, a mere 250 feet from West Lake Okoboji, one of Iowa’s most popular vacation destinations. Given its prime location, the property offers substantial — and extraordinarily valuable — open space, wildlife habitat and water quality benefits in an otherwise highly developed area.
“It’s not often that INHF has the opportunity to protect a property like Green Pastures,” said INHF Conservation Easement Director Erin Van Waus.
Ann and Sig wanted the wildlife habitat and scenic nature of Green Pastures protected from mounting development pressure in the area. In 2016, the Andersons donated the property to INHF to be owned and managed forever. They also placed a conservation easement on the land, now held by the Iowa DNR. This double layer of protection provides Ann the confidence that Green Pastures will be wild forever.
The property possesses several high quality native prairie remnants. Restored wetlands, grassland and an impressive assortment of perennial native plants can also be found here.
Green Pastures is also ideally situated among a complex of protected public and private land in the area. The property is adjacent to the Center Lake Wildlife Management Area (WMA), just one mile from the Jemmerson Slough WMA and Welch Lake WMA. Pikes Point State Park lies a mere 200 feet to the northwest and Kenue Park and Nature Center is just half a mile to the southeast.
“Green Pastures offers excellent wildlife habitat for a wide assortment of pollinators, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, as well as significant water quality benefits,” said INHF President Joe McGovern. “Its proximity to the lake and other protected lands enhance the beauty, open space and natural habitat of the public lands and waters, making its protection all the more special.”
Green Pastures was purchased in 1944 by Ann’s parents, Ralph and Sylvia Green.
“Daddy bid on a farm across the road, then left on business for several weeks,” recalled Ann. “I don’t think he really expected the offer to be accepted. A week later someone knocked on the door, informing my mother that the farm was theirs.”
With no way to reach her husband, Sylvia, who kept a checking account to cover household expenses, wrote the man a check for the down payment. A few days later, he returned with the deed — in her name — in hand. When Ralph was back home, Sylvia shared the news.
“Daddy said something along the lines of, ‘Well, let’s walk over and see our farm.’ To which mother responded, ‘Excuse me, Ralph, it’s my farm,’” said Ann, laughing.
Over the years, Ralph and Sylvia’s management of the land evolved as their affinity and understanding of it grew. In the early years, the farmland behind the lake home was traditionally rowcropped. During that time, Sylvia worked with the Dickinson County Conservation Department to create a conservation plan — one of the first for a private farm in the area.
“My mother was very forward-looking, and I think going through that process made it possible for my parents to see a future for the land beyond cropping,” Ann said.
Following Sylvia’s death in 1982, Ralph took the farmland out of production, letting the land return to its natural state. He enrolled the land in the first iteration of the Conservation Reserve Program introduced in the 1985 Farm Bill. Later in the ’80s, ten acres of trees were planted, providing additional beauty and wildlife habitat. Wildflower seeds were scattered. Green Pastures as it exists today began to take shape.
On the horizon
When Ann and Sig took over Green Pastures in the mid-‘90s, they picked up where Ralph and Sylvia left off. They began the process of restoring wetlands and prairies and expanding tree plantings on the property, engaging staff at INHF to help them along the way. The work has not come without its challenges, but Ann feels it’s been worthwhile.
“I think what moves someone to act comes from somewhere deep within,” Ann said. “We protect what we know to be beautiful and inspiring. This place is a part of me. I am compelled by what’s within to make it better and to protect it for future generations.”
It’s a sentiment that Ann shared with her father — more than she realized until she came across a 1988 article in The Okobojian while preparing to finalize the transfer of the land. In it, Ralph expressed his hope that Green Pastures would remain wild and protected from future development.
“His only daughter, Ann Anderson, Des Moines, belongs to Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation,” wrote the author, going on to quote Ralph, “‘I’m sure that she’ll keep the land this way after me.’”
Under INHF’s permanent care, staff will continue to steward the land, building and expanding upon what Ann, Sig, Ralph and Sylvia have already restored. The property is well suited for habitat restoration, and will be open to the public from time to time for education and outreach events, through which Ann hopes to inspire an awe and appreciation for Iowa’s wild places.
“You stand on that ridge looking out over the land and it’s compelling,” said Ann. "You can see so far. It's really quite a sensation."