By Mark S. Edwards
Does this path have a heart? This is a question an old man asks. If it does, it makes for a joyful journey.
I have been on almost every path in Iowa’s state parks. I found my heart walking there, a career and a connection to this magical world.
Iowa started our park system in the early 1900s because so little was left. Even our best parks had already been clear-cut, mined, plowed and heavily grazed. Iowa struggled to expand the system through the 1930s Great Depression, unimaginable droughts and economic collapse. By 1937, we led the nation in the establishment of state parks. Today we compete for the bottom in state parks and public lands.
These parks are very special not only for people but for the remaining plants and animals. We are the most biologically altered place in North America. Roughly 98 percent of Iowa’s 36 million acres have been “developed” for agricultural use, cities and roads. There are no old-growth forests left to study or enjoy. We have the most polluted surface water and the least species diversity. We rank at the bottom in environmental spending.
All state parks combined in one place equal 55,871 acres, a square just over nine miles on a side. The city of Des Moines covers 71,000 acres, a square about 10.5 miles on a side. Farmers converted around 50,000 acres of grassland, scrubland and wetlands from 2008 to 2011. Urban sprawl in Iowa alone has increased 50,000 acres in the last 10 years.
Almost all 87 postage stamp-size parks can be walked across in an hour and you are rarely a mile from a road. They are knotted with 500 miles of official trails or half the mileage of roads in Des Moines. Miles of trails are neglected and eroding badly.
Annual park visits continued to climb last year, reaching 15.6 million. Increasing demand to use these “undeveloped” parks will insure more “development” and decrease biological diversity. We mow hundreds of acres of non-native lawn species to picnic on, while invasive plants have expanded, covering a quarter of our total acres.
Even if we combine all public land including federal, state and county areas in Iowa, making them available as a biological repository, they would form a square less than 32 miles on a side. Only 10 percent of Iowa’s remaining prairies and forests lie within this public domain.
How do we keep what many have worked so hard and long to protect? Public meetings were held this year across Iowa to determine what needed to be done with them. The overwhelming outcome was a long list of developments and desires such as more mowing, more trails, bigger campgrounds, bathrooms and playgrounds. The best solution offered to accomplish these “improvements” was to plow parts of the parks and plant corn to provide funds for mowing the grass.
Surprisingly, the greatest support nationally for parks comes from people who never go there. They just know they are important. Parks improve water quality in our lakes and streams. They preserve places of scientific importance and quiet beauty. They are “living” historical monuments and outdoor classrooms. More important, they symbolize our maturity, which recognizes the importance of placing limits on “development” now and for future generations.
We need to stop all development (destruction) within these core areas now. We need to provide additional land to buffer all that remain.
And, most important, we need to create corridors or real trails, some miles wide, to link these areas together so the flow of life can continue.
Which path now? The head, the heart, one sees one above the other. What kind of world do we want to live in?
If the parks’ future depends on the few who vote, it will be decided by payoffs and politicians, not posterity.
What if everyone and every being voted? I think the trees, flowers, bugs and birds would win and vote us out of office and the park.
Mark S. Edwards of Boone retired in 2010 as Trails Coordinator from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources after 30 years of service. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org