The Nature of Iowa: From INHF's Ackelson Fellow

By Camilla Price on March 15, 2024 in Blog

As a transplanted Texan, I’ve learned that parks, trails, and wildlife areas matter wherever you are.

My name is Camilla, and I am INHF’s Mark C. Ackelson Fellow focusing on natural resource policy. During the 2024 legislative session, I am researching and advocating for state policy and funding decisions that support natural resource protection and outdoor recreation.

I moved to Iowa in January for the fellowship and have already learned so much about what nature means to the people and wildlife who live here.

Public lands provide many benefits for Iowa’s wildlife and communities.

After I was offered the position with INHF, I was excited to learn about my new home for the next four months. I looked up activities to do in Des Moines, from sporting events to the best spots to find dessert or a good book.

My first priority, though, was to connect with Iowa’s wildlife and natural spaces. I joined the Iowa Wildlife Federation, followed the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge on social media and read about the legacy of Jay “Ding” Darling, the famed Iowa conservationist and cartoonist.

As the weather gets warmer, I’m looking forward to exploring Central Iowa’s famed public parks and trails and reaping the physical and mental benefits of time outside. And I’m not the only one – Iowa’s trails support nearly 2 million people each year, bringing in over $17 million in consumer spending and offering relaxation and community building to residents.

With economic, environmental and community benefits, public outdoor areas in Iowa have much to offer.

Iowa’s wildlife and natural spaces are imperiled.

However, I’ve also learned that not everyone has access to the benefits that nature provides. I was surprised that less than 3% of land in Iowa is public – an even smaller number than in my home state of Texas!

Limiting natural resource conservation hurts not only humans, but also the wild species that call the state home. My first few weeks also revealed the fragility of wildlife in a changed landscape.

Since the day I moved in, I have regularly heard waterfowl as they fly past my window to settle in the Des Moines River and watched songbirds flitting between the trees. Then, two weeks ago, I found a finch that had fatally collided with one of the windows at my apartment complex, likely confused by the glassy reflection.

This bird’s fate was one I knew all too well. Iowa and Texas are joined on the Central Flyway, one of the main flight paths that migratory birds use to cross the country each spring and fall. As I’m walking in Des Moines, I notice how the skyscrapers with massive glass panels pose similar hazards to those in North Texas, where volunteers search every morning during the migration season for birds that struck buildings. (In North America, building collisions are one of the top three drivers behind the decline of birds.)

More broadly, urban sprawl and agriculture have encroached on Iowa’s forest, prairie, and waterways. This rapid, intensive land use change has left few refuges for the amazing species that I discovered are native to the state, like sandhill cranes, Blanding’s turtles or monarch butterflies. Some species have even disappeared because of pressures from humans, including one of my favorite wild animals, the mountain lion.

Although many species are in decline, wildlife still contribute to healthy communities in Iowa. Native plants reduce nutrient runoff and sequester carbon; freshwater mussels filter water; insects are experts at nutrient cycling. Many species bring in dollars from wildlife watchers and sportspeople. All of them possess an intrinsic value that, as good land stewards, we should seek to protect.

By preserving natural areas, we also preserve the processes that keep Iowa’s ecosystems flourishing.

What happens at the Capitol this session affects the future of all Iowans.

In February, I attended my first subcommittee meeting for a bill that would limit the ability of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and nonprofits to acquire public land from willing sellers. (The bill, SF 2324, did not advance past the second funnel.)

With less than 24 hours’ notice, the room was packed with people who came from all corners of Iowa to oppose the bill. Landowners, nature lovers, and farmers spoke about the importance of public lands to Iowa and expressed a desire to see these spaces expanded, not restricted.

That meeting and others at the Capitol have shown me just how many people are invested in the future of natural resources. Public parks, trails, and wildlife areas are essential to sustain economic growth and improve residents’ quality of life. 

These experiences have also given me the unique opportunity to meet titans of Iowa conservation, like Professor Neil Hamilton of Drake University, who spoke eloquently at the subcommittee meeting about the rights of property owners to contribute to conservation.

Camilla Price and Mark AckelsonI also had the great pleasure to meet Mark Ackelson, the past president of INHF and the namesake for my fellowship. The decisions that legislators make during this session will have lasting consequences across the state, and I hope my contributions to Iowa’s policy team will further Mr. Ackelson’s already impressive legacy of land protection and stewardship.

In our nature

In my previous positions in wildlife research and environmental communications, I have found that people who love nature are generally thoughtful, compassionate, and open-minded. At INHF, this principle remains true.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to share my skillset and learn from conservation professionals. The staff have been generous and welcoming during my first few weeks. INHF has the impressive ability to collaborate with people from different organizations and backgrounds and find common ground to protect Iowa’s land, water, and wildlife.

At the Capitol or out on the trails, I can’t wait to discover more about the nature of Iowa.