IOWA DERECHO 2020

Indian Creek Nature Center works to clear derecho destruction and turn to new growth

Volunteers work almost every day with nature center staff to clear trails of debris

Terry Brown of Loretto, Minn. works to clear fallen trees from Wood Duck Way, a 1.5-mile trail on the grounds of the Ind
Terry Brown of Loretto, Minn. works to clear fallen trees from Wood Duck Way, a 1.5-mile trail on the grounds of the Indian Creek Nature Center that was heavily damaged in the August 10 derecho in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. The nature center sustained extensive tree damage during the storm, which produced winds as high as 140 mph. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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On the Indian Creek Nature Center’s Wood Duck Way trail, visitors should be able to walk a full mile through wetlands and woods. Now, one can’t walk more than a couple hundred feet before fallen trees and debris have destroyed the path.

Staff members and volunteers have flocked to the nature center almost every day since the derecho blew across Iowa Aug. 10 to take stock of the damage and begin cleanup of the area. Marketing Manager Liz Zabel said by the end of Thursday the center would have racked up around 500 hours of volunteer time, equivalent to 19 days of work.

“This is going to be a very long and challenging process,” Zabel said.

Those at the center haven’t even been able to reach certain areas of the 500-acre park yet, Zabel said, because the damage is so great. In an interview with The Gazette, Indian Creek Nature Center Executive Director John Myers said they have received a few donations towards fixing the over-$250,000 in clean-up costs and the center will apply for grants, but it’s nowhere near enough.

According to a letter written by Myers, close to four of the five miles of trail in the center were directly impacted by the derecho.

As we walked through the fallen trees and broken branches, we quickly had to deviate from the trail and into the long grasses, which had been flattened by wind, debris, and feet. Trail Specialist Jason Bies took us through the clearest part of the forest floor, pointing out the path the new trail would take from tree to tree.

Myers said in the interview that the center can make an opportunity out of the trail destruction to create more trails, and make them better and less susceptible to the elements. All trails are currently closed, but Myers said the prairie trail could be open in the next few weeks, as it didn’t sustain as much damage. To make the other trails safe, Myers said, they’ll need to deal with broken but hanging branches as well as trail damage.

This is the second time the center has closed this year, first because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic hurt their revenue, Myers said, the storm was about three times worse for the center.

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Normally Sarah Botkin is the event coordinator at the nature center, but as each staff member has had to take on new roles during the COVID-19 pandemic and after the storm, she is also working as a volunteer coordinator. Zabel said the nature has seen 120 volunteers help in the aftermath of the storm.

Botkin said the response from volunteers has been great, and it’s come from more than just Iowans. A couple came from Wisconsin to volunteer, and a family on vacation from Virginia came out to help. Employees from Rinderknecht Associates, a general contractor in Cedar Rapids, came out Thursday to work, and the sounds of chainsaws and woodchippers drowned out the laughter and conversations between workers.

“Even though it’s a lot of physical, hard labor, people are willing to come out and do it, and are still leaving with smiles,” Botkin said.

Terry and Paula Brown came down from Minnesota to break up fallen trees and clear trails, but they have a bit more of a connection to the center than the average nature lover. The couple created a 65-foot exhibit for the center’s main hall that was installed in July, though it has yet to be unveiled.

Brown said they were scheduled to come down Monday to work on the exhibit, but they came a week early after they heard about the extent of the center’s storm damage. Besides a couple days where Brown completed his original goal in coming and worked on the exhibit, he said with a chuckle, he and his wife have been out every day with saws, helping where they can.

“You just do what you can do to help friends,” Brown said.

Every time Brown gets to a new area to work on, he said he feels the same sorrow he felt when he first saw the destruction to the area, but he’s just trying to focus on all the good the center will see in the future as a result.

Even with all the devastation, there is room for new growth for both the center and the nature it preserves, Myers said.

All the downed trees have allowed more sunlight to reach the forest floor, allowing for new growth from plants which were usually in the shade. As we walked through the woods, knee-length twigs with just one or two leaves sprouted from the ground, surrounding dying trees and making the ground even greener.

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These new plants will serve as food for wildlife as well Brown said, and even rotting wood from trees and branches will attract bugs, which will in turn attract animals to eat them.

The center can also educate landowners on what to replant on their property, such as gardens and certain types of trees.

“Ecologically, this could be really good for the community,” Myers said. “That doesn’t slight the property loss or the emotional connection, but it can help the environment.”

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