CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County’s growing environmental movement gathered momentum over the weekend when more than 200 residents attended a forum intended to inspire and instruct them in the creation of habitat for imperiled pollinator insects.
“Five years from now we are going to have a story like no other county in the nation,” said Clark McLeod, director of the Monarch Research Project, which co-sponsored the forum Saturday along with Trees Forever, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Linn County Conservation and Hertz Farm Management.
Citing the thousand-acre plan, in which the city of Cedar Rapids, Linn County and other entities have committed to convert 1,000 acres of underused turf grass to pollinator habitat, McLeod said private landowners can multiply the effort to encompass 10,000 acres.
Accomplishment of what he calls a moonshot “would make us the only county in the country to actually increase the monarch butterfly population,” he said.
Dennis Goemaat, deputy director of the Linn County Conservation Department, said the local habitat initiatives, coupled with Linn County voters’ recent 74 percent approval of a $40 million conservation bond issue, establishes the area as a leader in environmental consciousness.
The forum featured the success stories of three Linn County private landowners.
Karen Hoyt recounted her efforts to transform a boring lawn into a well-groomed 3-acre prairie that provides lush habitat for people and pollinators.
“It feels so right and shows that small properties can make a difference,” she said.
Tom and Kathleen Aller described how they converted a rundown 55-acre farm into a haven for native plants, wildlife and pollinator insects.
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Kathleen Aller said her continuing experience as a beekeeper has brought her joy and a greater understanding of the natural world.
“When it all comes together, you walk around and say, ‘This is pretty cool,’ ” Tom Aller said.
Though the conversion was not done for economic reasons, Tom Aller said the federal government provides an annual payment of $205 per acre for land enrolled in the pollinator habitat program.
“We found out you can get paid for doing the right thing,” he said.
Cindy Burke explained how a conservation easement with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation has helped her family provide permanent protection for their nearly 300 acres in the Wapsipinicon valley near Stone City.
Their property, she said, includes the first nationally registered historic landscape in the United States — the view that served as the model for Grant Wood’s 1931 painting, “Fall Plowing.”
It also includes many heritage plants and gardens and a timber restoration consisting of more than 80,000 trees planted by family members during the past 40 years.
The easement protects the intrinsic value of nature and provides peace of mind for her parents and other family members who want the land left as it is, Burke said.
Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation President Joe McGovern said the foundation through similar easements has protected more than 145,000 acres.
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Because only 2.5 percent of Iowa is in public ownership, conservation gains “depend on people doing positive things on their private land,” he said.
Kraig McPeek, Iowa-Illinois field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the Linn County environmental movement is among the most powerful he’s seen. “This does not happen elsewhere,” he said.
Linn County’s Goemaat said he thinks environmental consciousness is reaching “a critical mass where we can really make a difference.”
Recalling a childhood mass monarch sighting that he described as “a sea of orange,” Goemaat expressed hope that “today’s kids will again be able to enjoy that magical experience.”