The Ripple Effect

By Kevin Cutsforth on December 28, 2023 in Blog



In the ten years INHF’s volunteer program has formally existed, it has engaged more than 7,000 people. Some interactions are brief, sharing just an hour or two while pulling garlic mustard or collecting prairie seeds. But sometimes, like a stone tossed into a pond with a sudden plunk, we watch the ripples of their involvement grow. 

Back in 1970, Richard and Erna Kuehl set aside a piece of their family’s cropland to build a pond. The fresh new pond looked a bit lonely, so they put a few walnut trees around it—but their work here was far from over. This 40-acre plot emerged as a family project decades in the making: the Kuehls, including daughters Tracey and Lisa, planted all manner of shrubs, flowers and trees to diversify and expand this growing sanctuary. As the years went by, this oasis became a powerful symbol of their family’s shared love of nature and wildlife— binding generations in a physical space. 

“It has been an unbelievable journey to grow up there as a little kid and see it transform from a naked pasture with nothing on it except a little creek to what it’s become today,” Tracey said. “It’s been a privilege.” 

Richard Kuehl and his family graciously donated this land to INHF so that their family monument will not only remain but continue to grow. For Tracey, protection wasn’t the end of the story. She’s still volunteering her time as a land ambassador, helping staff steward the land to build and maintain this piece of her family’s legacy. And beyond that, she wants to spread the word.

“My father had hoped this place could be used for public education one day, so if there was a way to use it to help people learn, that would be the icing on the cake for my family,” Tracey said. 

Tracey continues to live her family’s passion while her volunteerism is benefiting more lives—humans, plants and animals alike. 

David Marlow met his late wife Anna Gardner at a pivotal time in his life. He’d spent his youth watching critters and climbing fences, but when David moved off the family farm and started school at Iowa State University, his connection to nature started to fray. When Anna came along, she brought him back to nature and introduced him to the finer points of species identification and diversity— Anna was a student of ecology and biology but also specialized in art, and she drew David into her world. Her father sold them some of his land, which became their haven for more than 20 years together. Her mission and passion became David’s too, and before she passed in 2006, he promised that the land that meant so much to both of them would be protected. 

Their land, now safeguarded with a conservation easement, sits adjacent to an 80-acre parcel Anna’s father, JH Gardner, donated to INHF in 2009 in her memory. David’s proximity and long history of helping JH tend to that land beckoned him into a new role: historian, guide and cheerleader. He now regularly partners with INHF to engage hordes of college students in ISU’s Natural Resources Ecology and Management program in restoration activities to learn by doing. 

ISU NREM students pose with David Marlow at his property in Boone County.

 David Marlow poses for a photo during a 2023 workday with ISU NREM students at his property in Boone County.

“With the volunteers from Iowa State and INHF, we’ve been able to clear invasive species and cedar trees and expand the prairies,” said David. “But it’s not all work. We get to sit and enjoy the view and all the things that we discover there. Last fall, we got to see a flock of Sandhill Cranes fly over us while we were working out there, so we never know what exactly we’re going to find but it’s always interesting and it’s always, always good.” 

David shares stories about his life on the land and the discoveries he’s made with the students—pulling them into Anna’s world just as she did for him decades ago. Through engaging others in what he loves, he’s fostering new generations of passionate conservationists. 

Even at a young age, Cindy Burke’s mission in life was to help others. She was always rescuing baby birds or raccoons that were injured or orphaned and finding ways to help them get back into the wild. Her desire to help has expanded in scope throughout her life, from a career as a therapist to her efforts to preserve habitat and open space. As a landowner, she felt a personal responsibility to make sure the land supported people and wildlife into the future, which led her to INHF. 

“When I reached out to INHF about protecting my property, they said, ‘What do you want long term, and how can we help you?’ and that really drew me in,” Cindy said. 

Heartened by the shared values and with a driving desire to give back, Cindy joined INHF’s board in 2015. She’s spreading the word to her neighbors about how INHF can help them, too. 

“I’ve helped one neighbor protect their property, and I’m working with a couple of others,” Cindy said. “Before I’m gone, I hope to help protect another 1,000 acres. I think I can.” 

Cindy Burke pictured with INHF Stewardship interns working on her property.

Cindy Burke hosts INHF stewardship interns for a workday on her property in Linn County.

As for the animals that inspired her to devote her life to helping others all those years ago? “I’m working on turning a barn into an animal rehabilitation/reintroduction center”, Cindy said. “I want to make it a place where we can help animals, but also educate kids about nature and wildlife in Iowa.” 

Cindy’s intersection with INHF is drawing others into the work, lifting the mission and helping others imagine a better Iowa for the future. 

We can never be sure how big of a splash we might make, or how far those ripples can go. Some of us are born with a need to serve, others are pulled in by loved ones, and some do it without even meaning to. However you serve nature, INHF is proud and grateful for all of our supporters: board members and partner organizations, stewardship and office volunteers, donors, educators, advocates and friends. Each and every one has made a splash, and the ripples will be seen long into the future.