The Last Shoreline
Drifting by in the boat, this special 2,020-foot span of shoreline on East Okoboji Lake in Dickinson County is immediately noticeable. Noticeable not only for what it lacks — houses, high-rises, docks — but also for what is there: sprawling trees, a high grassy ridge and plenty of nature. Thanks to the quick response of hundreds of individuals, area businesses, community groups and foundations, it will continue to be so.
On Sept.7, 2021, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation wrapped up a historic campaign to purchase the East Lake shoreline, now known as The Narrows Preserve, and closed on the property at the end of December. The property will be available for public access starting this summer, as a place for low-impact recreation like hiking and bird watching.
“I am happy to support this project because it is a great location and Iowans need public spaces to explore and enjoy nature,” says Winifred “Teddy” Shuttleworth. The Shuttleworth family has a history in the Iowa Great Lakes region that extends through multiple generations — and several family members gave to The Narrows Preserve.
“We are elated,” said James Blum, a neighbor of The Narrows Preserve. “It
is naturally a very important tract. Any development would have increased boat traffic, overcrowding and caused much further shoreline damage to both sides of the lake in this area.”
While many people are pleased to see that the sale of this property to INHF won’t be contributing to the increase of human impact in the area, others are just as delighted to see that wildlife will continue to have lakefront access. Because the Narrows Preserve abuts Elinor Bedell State Park and is also adjacent to the Spring Run Wildlife Management and Bird Conservation Area, it provides an important link between existing open space.
“We chose to support this protection project because we know the value of this type of open, natural space,” said Doug Harr, President of Iowa Audubon Society. “Birds and other animals need this kind of continuous corridor to move freely between resources. The Narrows Preserve is a unique intersection between a state park and a bird conservation area, linking some of the last remaining natural shoreline habitat on East Okoboji Lake with important and expansive protected uplands.”
“Sometimes things just come together as they should, and that was the case for this wonderful piece of land,” said Eric Hoien, Broker/Owner of Hoien Realty. “Everything aligned to make this conservation project work out perfectly — the right buyer, the right seller, perfect timing, and land that deserved to be protected in perpetuity. All Dickinson County residents, and all Iowans for that matter, will benefit from this protection for generations to come.”
Tom Bedell, the property seller, extended an option to INHF, which allowed time to fundraise for the $8.2 million needed for outright purchase. With a Labor Day deadline, INHF pushed hard to line up enough pledges to execute the option.
“We simply had to act,” said Joe McGovern, President of INHF. “This land serves a critical function to the lake’s ecosystem. Opportunities like this only come around once in a lifetime.”
“The lakes community has generously supported numerous INHF water quality and protection projects in the past,” said McGovern. “We knew this would be a unique campaign, and a big ask, but people really stepped up, both in financial support and helping get the word out.”
The opportunity to protect The Narrows Preserve ignited the community —a community dedicated to the preservation of the region’s unique beauty and ecological importance.
“This was a unique opportunity to preserve undeveloped ground for the public. As the area continues to develop, it’s a place people can go to enjoy the beauty of what this place has to offer,” said Steve Goodenow, whose family was a lead contributor to the project.
Local protection groups — including East Okoboji Lakes Improvement Corporation (EOLIC), Okoboji Protective Association, Spirit Lake Protective Association and Iowa Great Lakes Association — played a crucial role in the project.
“For a local lake protective association, we dream big,” said Terry Wilts, Secretary of EOLIC. “We were ready to be a resource in whatever manner we could.” In addition to helping fundraise, EOLIC has already jumped into volunteer service on the land by helping pull trash and remove fencing.
Permanent protection of The Narrows Preserve was the goal from the beginning. So, in addition to INHF planning to own the property long-term for management — in alignment with its mission to protect and restore Iowa’s land, water and wildlife — a conservation easement was placed on the property immediately after it came into INHF’s ownership.
Dickinson County Conservation will act as the enforcer of the conservation easement — a legal arrangement that stays with the property deed regardless of who owns it. The easement preserves the natural wildlife habitat, perennial vegetation that benefits water quality of East Okoboji Lake, and open-space character of the property as well as preventing any use that would significantly impair or interfere with its conservation values like development, permanent structures, mining or agricultural use.
“That’s the beauty of this campaign,” said McGovern. “Once it was protected it will remain so forever.”
But just because the protection is in place doesn’t mean the work is over.
“The next steps in land stewardship involve restoring a more diverse mix of prairie plants into the grassland, removing interior fences, and removing invasive vegetation within the woodland and grasslands,” said Ryan Schmidt, INHF’s Central Iowa Land Stewardship Director. “We are fortunate to have the opportunity to steward the land in a way that makes an already quality natural area even better.” There will be considerable tree work done to create habitat for grassland birds, and funding from the Dickinson County Water Quality Commission will assist with extensive shoreline and riparian habitat restoration over the next couple of years.
The protection of The Narrows Preserve is one of the most significant preservation and restoration projects the Iowa Great Lakes region has ever seen.
“The cool thing is during these times of such great divide in our country, so many individuals, businesses and corporations all came together for one unified sole purpose: to protect the last privately owned, undeveloped piece of shoreline on East Okoboji,” wrote Steve Weisman, Outdoors Editor for Dickinson County News. “Those who gave reinforced just how much folks near and far care about the Iowa Great Lakes!”
Standing at the top of the ridge, feeling the breeze whip through your hair, gazing out across the Narrows, it is easy to feel the sense of interconnectedness. The flow of water through the watershed, the span of sky overhead, the many ways that people enjoy and value the Iowa Great Lakes. Dynamic forces — the power of community, the value of recreational spaces, the importance of water quality and habitat, and the fierce desire to protect forever this last section of privately owned and undeveloped lakeshore — culminated beautifully into The Narrows Preserve.