SOLON — Deep in the timber of Big Grove Preserve, Ken Lowder is working with a few others to saw down the under canopy and invasive species so sunlight can shine through and hopefully spur growth of young native trees, such as white oak trees.
A quarter-acre swath has been thinned, but with 80 acres, the job likely will never be totally done, he said. The hope is to restore the land, which has 4.5 miles of established hiking trails for public use, to its pre-settlement state with a wide variety of native species so people can enjoy it today and for years to come.
“We are trying to spare oaks and hickories and cut everything else down,” said Lowder, who is board president of the Bur Oak Land Trust.
The land trust has been working since 1978 to protect and conserve natural areas, with a goal of stewarding land back to what it once was. As the organization celebrates its 40-year anniversary this year, leaders hope to spread its mission by raising awareness about its public lands and inspiring a new generation of conservationists to engage with the organization as volunteers or donors.
“We’ve been here a long time, we’ve grown a lot and we are still growing,” said Tammy Wright, executive director of the land trust. “We don’t want to be the best-kept secret in Johnson County anymore.”
The organization, which rebranded from Johnson County Heritage Trust to Bur Oak in 2014, has 11 properties containing about 435 acres of land, primarily in Johnson County with smaller parcels in Washington and Poweshiek counties.
Aside from Big Grove Preserve, the organization has Pappy Dickens Preserve, a 16.5-acre section bordering Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City, the 107-acre Turkey Creek Preserve in Solon and Shimek Ravine near Shimek Elementary in Iowa City.
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In addition to encouraging public use of their land, the organization is continually working to grow.
The Big Grove Preserve, for example, consists of 40 acres recently acquired that’s contiguous to 40 acres the trust had already owned. Another 132 acres of contiguous woodland was recently acquired by the Johnson County Conservation Board.
The trust hopes to continue adding land through donations or low-cost purchases, and it also works with private landowners on conservation easements. These legally binding documents restrict future use of a property.
“It could be the land has been in the family for years and years and the family wants to protect it,” said Jason Taylor, property stewardship specialist for Bur Oak. “They don’t want it to become a housing development.”
Taylor said the stewardship work is needed to preserve forest health since natural fires are extinguished before they can restore balance to the ecosystem. He pointed to a tiny all-white sprout called Indian Pipe or ghost pipe, a rare find, as an example of the forest health.
Containing no chlorophyll, the plant is parasitic. It lives off fungus and other plant matter.
“There’s an amazing complex web of nature that allows the plant to grow,” he said. “We are working to insure bio diversity of pre-settlement species.”
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