Iowa City couple gets state conservation award for prairie and woodland restoration

Pat and Enid Cancilla created prairie and woodland on their parcel near Coralville Lake, advocated for conservation

Susan Salterberg of Iowa City looks down from the top of the Celebration Barn in Solon to celebrate the winners of the 2
Susan Salterberg of Iowa City looks down from the top of the Celebration Barn in Solon to celebrate the winners of the 2019 Hagie Heritage Award on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. Pat and Enid Cancilla of Iowa City won the award from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation for their decadeslong efforts at restoring prairie and woodland on their property and for their conservation efforts in Johnson County. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

When Pat and Enid Cancilla bought a 90-acre Johnson County farm in 1978, they decided to do something different with the land bordering Coralville Lake.

“When we got it, it was all corn and beans,” said Pat Cancilla, 89.

The couple planted about one-third of the parcel in prairie so that water flowing from traditional row crops would be filtered before reaching the lake, reducing erosion and fertilizer runoff.

“If you’ve got good prairie grasses, they put down roots 20 to 30 feet,” he said. “They will allow when it rains for rain water to run down the roots instead of eroding the soil.”

The couple’s decadeslong passion for Iowa’s land, water and wildlife was honored last week by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which gave the Cancillas, now of Iowa City, the 2019 Lawrence and Eula Hagie Heritage Award.

The award, which comes with $1,000 and a hand-carved acorn sculpture, recognizes Iowans who have demonstrated extraordinary personal service and commitment to improving the quality of Iowa’s natural environment and who encourage others to do the same.

“I admire the Cancillas partly because they have approached their efforts as a couple and partly because of the sheer longevity of their involvement with conservation issues,” said Don Beneke, a Natural Heritage Foundation board member on the award selection committee.

For 20 years, the couple planted seeds, did prairie burns every two to three years to strengthen the roots and enjoyed walking among the nine different types of grasses and eight varieties of flowers.

“We’d just look at them and marvel on them,” Pat Cancilla said.


The Cancillas also donated wood to local organizations for firewood, used their garden to teach their community about eco-friendly gardening and advocated for legislation and policies that support sound conservation, the Natural Heritage Foundation reported. The Cancillas have volunteered many hours to raptor protection and rehabilitation at the Iowa Raptor Project and the Raptor Advocacy Rehabilitation and Education program in Iowa City.

The Cancillas’ daughter, Erin Melloy, now lives with her husband on the land restored by her parents.

The Hagie Heritage Award was established by Janice Hagie Shindel of Florida and Ila Jeanne Hagie Logan of Moville in honor of their parents, Lawrence and Eula Hagie.

The Natural Heritage Foundation is a nonprofit conservation group that works with private landowners and public partners to protect and restore Iowa’s land, water and wildlife. Since its founding in 1979, the group has helped protect more than 170,000 acres of Iowa’s natural resources, the organization reported.

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