Winding through a Benton County woodland just south of Urbana is an attraction that brings people from all over. The disc golf course at Wildcat Bluff Recreation Area is the highest rated course in Iowa and one of the top 20 in the country.
Benton County Conservation Executive Director Shelby Williams said the 21-hole course can see 200 users on a Saturday or Sunday, and it hosts tournaments that bring in players from around the world.
But the 130-acre recreation area that surrounds the course offers so much more for park users. Five miles of trails run through 131 acres of beautiful woodlands along the Cedar River, with an active Bald Eagle nest across the river from the public boat ramp. The spot is ideal for camping, hiking, birdwatching, fishing and hunting. And, with a little help, the park is soon going to more than double its size.
When Wendling Quarries, Inc. decided to sell the property it owned adjacent to the park, they reached out to Benton County Conservation (BCC) to give them the first opportunity to buy it. Benton County approached Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) about helping to purchase the property.
“This is a phenomenal project,” said Ross Baxter, INHF Senior Land Protection Director and Counsel. “We’re trying to build on an existing park and expand water quality, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities. But we’re going to need significant help from the public to make this happen.”
Earlier this year, INHF secured the 184 acres adjacent to Wildcat Bluff from Wendling Quarries for $1.2 million. The property is a mix of upland, riparian timber, floodplain lowland and riverbank habitat along the Cedar River. The plan is to eventually transfer the property to Benton County Conservation once funds are raised to cover its cost.
While the project is a significant investment, Benton County Conservation Board member Randy Scheel said they couldn’t pass it up. “We really felt that it was the property of a lifetime. I’ve been on the board for more than 10 years now. My second term expired in 2022, but because of this property I knew I wanted to stay on for another term. I felt so strongly about what it meant for our county and for conservation.”
BCC and INHF have already raised more than $250,000 toward the project and are seeking additional donations and grant funding. The goal is to complete fundraising and transfer the property in the coming years so that it can be opened to the public.
“We took a leap of faith because if we don’t do it now it could be developed,” Scheel said. “What helped us was that a few years ago we purchased Edna Shein Fen with the help of INHF. That was also a significant investment. It was certainly not easy, but we were able to purchase that property. Seeing success with fundraising in the past, we had confidence.”
The 184-acre addition has received support from a wide variety of people and organizations in the community. Local Pheasants Forever chapters and the statewide organization have committed a combined $50,000. The addition is a combination of woodland, grassland and floodplain that will be ideal for hunting.
The project also received a letter of support from the Benton County Suicide Prevention Coalition, which sees a direct link between access to nature and mental health.
“A recent survey in Benton County said the No. 1 priority for citizens is mental health. No. 2 is physical health. Green space is a priority,” said Williams. “Adding this many more miles of trail is huge. They say it’s a park prescription.”
Benton County Conservation is also excited about the increased opportunity for education and outdoor recreation for students. There are more than 12,000 students within 30 miles of the property that receive free or reduced school lunch, an economic class that sees the most benefit from increased public park spaces.
“Our naturalists at BCC do a phenomenal job. This is another property that our schools will be able to use for teaching kids about the outdoors,” Scheel said.
The Benton County Conservation team has big dreams for this property — including an accessible trail to provide those living with ALS, as well as other disabilities, with the opportunity to enjoy natural places. The vision was inspired by an anonymous major donor to the project who is living with ALS.
“This will appeal to a wide variety of people,” Scheel said. “Even immediately, one of the advantages of this property is that we don’t have to spend much time or effort to do anything to change it. Immediately there will be opportunity for hunting, birdwatching, hiking. But we’re going to need help to make it happen.”
Learn more about the project and how you can support the addition here.