Protecting land — and the life that lives on it — is not as simple as setting it aside.

The Nature Conservancy and other groups that manage natural lands in the Lower Cedar River Valley of eastern Iowa are locked in a constant battle against various forces such as flooding and invasive plant species that crowd out natives.

Just last month, workers with heavy equipment were cutting down trees at the conservancy’s Swamp White Oak Nature Preserve, grinding into chips the trunks and branches of hawthorn, Osage orange and locust trees.

At first blush, one might question tree removal in a nature preserve. Trees and nature go together, right?

Not if they are the “wrong” kind of trees.

Most habitats such as Swamp White Oak have been destroyed either by lack of fire — which has allowed other trees to encroach — or they have been cleared for farming.

Because Swamp White Oak hasn’t been subject to fire, other trees have grown up, changing the nature of the woodland and the plants and animals living in it. Cutting down the new trees is an attempt to “set back the clock,” said Matt Fisher, the conservancy’s eastern Iowa project director.

The conservancy also has done intentional burns on the preserve and hopes to do more this spring or fall.


Flooding is ‘biggest 

single threat’

An even bigger threat to the area is flooding, Fisher said.

While the area always has been subject to floods, the massive 2008 event on the Cedar and Iowa rivers that caused so much harm to the human environment also damaged natural areas.

Floodwaters brought in seeds of reed canary grass, for example, an invasive species that displaces native plants without providing good habitat for animals, Fisher said.

In some cases, water stood for a month or more, stressing and, in some cases, killing trees such as hackberries.

“It has become obvious that altered hydrology is the biggest single threat to nature areas,” Fisher said. “We have an interest here because of biodiversity, but if we don’t protect it from altered hydrology, it won’t last.”

The Cedar and Iowa rivers flooded in the past, too, but because wetlands have been drained and perennial plant covers — both of which absorb water — have been removed, the frequency has increased, said Laura Jackson of the University of Northern Iowa, who studied the 2008 floods.

To reduce the impact of future floods, the conservancy and other groups are trying to return as much land as possible to what it was before settlement, gaining easements that would maintain land in perpetuity for conservation rather than for farming or development.

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Alliant grant worked toward easements

To help with this, the conservancy applied for and received a $100,000 grant last year from the Alliant Energy Foundation to pay for employees to work with landowners and put land in emergency watershed and wetland reserve programs, both of which are offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Alliant is the power provider in Cedar Rapids and many areas of the Lower Cedar River Valley, and officials from the utility saw firsthand the devastating effects of the 2008 flood on its own facilities as well as its customers’ property. 

“There was not anyone that was not touched by the flood,” said Julie Bauer, the executive director of the Alliant Energy Foundation. 

While the foundation normally awards grants in the $500-$2,500 range, its leaders were happy to award the large amount they did to The Nature Conservancy because they wanted to make 

an impact to “help restore the land to its original function and to help with flood mitigation,” she said.

The grant helped hire Ryan Rasmussen, who worked out of the Muscatine County Soil and Water Conservation District office with landowners to secure easements; that is, in exchange for a one-time payment, the landowners would retain their property but give up farming and development rights, and then the government would pay for restoration.

So far, Rasmussen has secured emergency watershed easement applications on 1,699 acres in Muscatine County and 978 acres in Louisa County, plus wetland reserve easements on 3,982 acres in Muscatine County and 449 acres in Louisa County.