A few years ago, we entered Iowa after an endless drive across South Dakota.
Tired and hungry, we needed to get off the road and spotted a sign pointing to Woodbury County’s Little Sioux Park. Soon we were relaxing by our tent near a small, pleasant lake in a park we had never heard of.
That’s often the way it is with county parklands. They are serendipitous gems tucked into nature and scattered about Iowa.
Iowa’s road map lacks the vast patches of green shading that indicate national forests on the Idaho state map, and statistics confirm map colors. Federal and state governments own 67 percent of Idaho yet only about 1 percent of Iowa. Our state ranks 49th in public land. Only Connecticut ranks lower.
Fortunately, we learned that numbers are misleading. They don’t tally 200,000 acres in 1,850 separate places managed by Iowa’s 99 county conservation boards. Iowa may lack national forests and parks, but it’s comprehensive system of county parklands is the nation’s best.
State parks may grab headlines, but county parklands likely provide far more recreational opportunities. There is a county park, trail, natural area, river access or preserve within a short drive of every Iowan’s home. Every year new ones open.
Iowa’s early conservationists recognized a local hunger for public land but faced an uphill battle. Its state park system was launched in 1920 but to create parks, land would have to be purchased from private owners or donated by them. Backbone, Lacey-Keosauqua and Palisades-Kepler were among the earliest parks established at the dawn of the automobile age when an increasingly affluent urban population wanted to load the kids in the car and picnic in scenic places. State parks were ideal destinations but often were a long drive on the fledgling road system from where people lived.
Prosperity following World War II increased the need for public land as growing families pushed for more places to camp, picnic and hunt. In response, Iowa passed legislation in 1955 allowing counties to create conservation boards. It was a landmark law that enormously expanded outdoor recreation. By the following year, voters in 16 counties passed initiatives to create conservation boards. More counties followed suit, and, by 1989, every Iowa county had a system in place.
The law gave each county the authority to appoint volunteers to sit on conservation boards and decide how to best use tax money to suit local needs for open space and outdoor recreation. Professional staff manage properties. Revenue comes mostly from taxes, but most conservation boards augment it with use fees, grants and the support of friends’ groups.
THE TRAIL PHENOMENON
One early evening we unloaded our bikes at Marion’s municipal Waldo’s Rock Park, cycled down a short access and pedaled east on Linn County Conservation Board’s stretch of the Grant Wood Trail. As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we skimmed along nodding to other bicyclists and walkers. Some trails follow quiet creeks. Others wind under a verdant canopy. Still others parallel lush Iowa farmland. This network of trails is a sight that would have amazed Iowans in pre-trail days.
About 40 years ago the renowned Cedar Valley Nature Trail was begun amid bitter controversy. Landowners claimed trails were crime incubators, but advocates successfully completed section after section of a trail that today connects Waterloo and Cedar Rapids.
Soon new trails opened across the state. Acre per acre they may be the most heavily used and loved of all parklands. Many are long and connect different county conservation board and municipal parks. All seem busy with walkers, skateboarders, bicyclists and even folks enjoying nature from their wheelchair.
Despite the concerns of early trail opponents crime is minimal while opportunity for exercise, fresh air and interesting scenery is nearly unlimited.