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Iowa City neighbors banded together to preserve Shimek Ravine

"We didn't want it chopped down and leveled off"

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Mary Wall’s home in north Iowa City is surrounded by woods. She calls it her treehouse.

But her treehouse might not still be surrounded by trees had she and her neighbors not banded together in 1992 to save the land, now named Shimek Ravine.

The 19-acre wooded valley bounded by Shimek Elementary, Whiting Avenue, Ridge Road and Interstate 80 is surrounded by developed property, but the oak-hickory forest with large trees, rich forest floor, deep ravine and small stream remains undisturbed.

As the city developed around the woods in the late 80s, neighbors grew increasingly concerned that the trees would soon be cut down for more homes, especially as real estate developers eyed the area.

“We didn’t want it chopped down and leveled off,” Wall said. “We wanted natural woods.”

So instead of leaving it to chance, the group of 13 neighbors pooled their money to purchase the land from another family who had inherited it and put it up for sale. Donations ranged from $1,750 to $25,000, adding up to $119,250.

“How do you get all these people moving in the same direction? It’s like herding cats,” said Ken Lowder, property manager of the Shimek Ravine and a board member of the land trust. “To have their interest high enough to pop up several thousand dollars out of pocket to make it happen is extraordinary.”

Some of the neighbors wanted to keep a portion of the land to themselves — the percentage of land they could keep private depended on the amount of money they put in — but all agreed it would be kept in it’s natural state and never developed.

The remaining 13.84 acres of land not kept privately was donated to the Johnson County Heritage Trust, now known as the Bur Oak Land Trust, whose mission is to protect and preserve the natural areas of Johnson and surrounding counties for future generations.

“We’re an outlet for people that have had properties they’ve owned for years or have fallen in love with and don’t want to see developed,” said Bur Oak’s executive director Tammy Wright. “Whether they donate it or retain the properties as owners and we place a conservation easement on it, it’s a way to help them protect their property.”

Usually, the land trust works with just one owner or family that wants to preserve their land, which is what’s so unique about the Shimek Ravine transaction.

“In a way, they were doing it to protect their backyard, but at the same time, it was people working together for a common cause,” Wright said. “It creates a beautiful place for future generations.”

Bur Oak’s seven properties — potentially soon to be eight, as the trust announced a campaign to preserve another 40-acre property in Iowa City in April — are all open to the public and are meant to maintain open space for people to get outside.

“Getting outside is very important,” Wright said. “Not only just to get outside but to appreciate what’s out there.”

“What’s left of the wilder places is precious,” Lowder said. “Kids don’t have the opportunity to get outside and into the woods as much as I did as a kid because these places aren’t very common anymore. ... Any way that we can help preserve those remaining areas is important.”

Today, just four of the original 13 neighbors that saved the woods remain in the ravine, including 85-year-old Wall. But because of their donation, the land will be forever preserved under the trust.

“The legacy they left behind is priceless,” Wright said.

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