116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WATERVILLE - The state soon may acquire a wild chunk of northeast Iowa that has nature lovers of several stripes smiling in anticipation.
The 368-acre parcel, proposed for addition to Yellow River State Forest in Allamakee County at a cost of $1.4 million, has characteristics that appeal to anglers, hunters, bird watchers and rare plant enthusiasts.
'What doesn't it have?” asked Anita O'Gara, the development director for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which is brokering the deal that could put a trout stream and its scenic environs into state ownership.
The proposal to acquire the former Nelson family property is slated for discussion Thursday by the Iowa Natural Resources Commission.
With all its twists and turns, Big Paint Creek, which hosts naturally reproducing brown trout, runs 2.1 miles along a series of north-facing wooded bluffs.
Just above the creek, the face of one of those bluffs terminates in an algific talus slope, whose preternaturally cool microclimate supports a large population of Canada yew conifer and the federally threatened northern monkshood flowering plant.
And in the canopy of mature hardwoods sloping to the creek resides a dense summer population of cerulean warblers, a neotropical songbird whose population has fallen 70 percent in the past four decades.
Three Department of Natural Resources bureaus - forestry, fisheries and wildlife - think it is a high priority acquisition, O'Gara said.
'The creek is the slam dunk. Plus, it buffers what may be the best cerulean warbler habitat on the continent, and it contains the big algific talus slope,” said Bruce Blair, the DNR forester who manages the 8,503-acre Yellow River State Forest.
The acquisition would expand the state's only globally significant bird area, which encompasses more than 14,000 acres of public land that includes Yellow River State Forest and Effigy Mounds National Monument.
Ornithologist Jon Stravers of McGregor, whose research led to the globally significant designation, said the cerulean warbler density in the area is so phenomenal that he can't get his 'head around it.”
'What you have there are little canopy openings in big old trees on steep slopes. That's what pulls them in,” he said.
Stravers praised the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation for buying the property and giving the state time to raise the purchase funds.
'This has happened time and again. Nobody else can move that fast. They buy it and eventually sell it back to the state,” Stravers said.
The cool microhabitat occurs at the base of a steep slope of fractured limestone that retains ice and emits cold air throughout the growing season, fostering the persistence of northern species such as yellow birch and Canada yew and survivors of earlier, cooler eras such as northern monkshood.
Algific talus slope expert Cathy Henry, who at the time was operations manager for the Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge, said she examined the slope in 2000, shortly after it was discovered by Gretchen Cline, then a DNR district forester in Elkader.
'It was very steep, very pretty and quite pristine. It has a lot of northern monkshood on it,” said Henry, who now manages the Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Iowa.
Cline, now an employee of Geode Forestry in Swedesburg, said finding the talus slope is among her proudest accomplishments as a DNR forester.
The acquisition is supported by Iowa Audubon and several of its chapters, as well as by several Trout Unlimited chapters and the Hawkeye Fly Fishing Association.
'It's a good-sized stream with the potential to be a good fishery,” said Kent Kleckner, vice president of Trout Unlimited's Iowa Driftless Chapter, which has hosted several work days to improve stream habitat and plans two more later this month.
Those work days have focused on gaining control of an invasive plant species, Japanese knotweed, which has crowded native plant species away from the stream bank.
Controlling the knotweed will be a top priority if the property becomes part of the Yellow River State Forest, the DNR's Blair said.
Driftless Chapter member Sam Fox of Harpers Ferry called Big Paint a 'sleeper that could become a jewel.”