Looking at a map of America’s national parks, one might think that the beauty of our nation can be found only in California and the Mountain West. But breathtaking beauty exists right here in the heart of America, just two hours from Cedar Rapids in the upper Mississippi Valley.
More than 110 years ago, state Rep. George Schulte tried to get the rest of the country to see this area’s unrivaled natural beauty, but his attempts to create a national park in Iowa were shot down. Instead, a small portion of the area he envisioned as a national park was designated as a national monument — Effigy Mounds National Monument.
At the time, it was determined that a national park in the valley of the upper Mississippi River was “not desirable” and that the proposed park’s “typical rather than extraordinary” scenery was not of national interest. But we could not disagree more — the upper Mississippi Valley is nothing short of extraordinary.
Effigy Mounds National Monument is located in Allamakee and Clayton counties in the northeastern corner of Iowa, along the west bank of the Mississippi River. It is an area rich in history and diverse in landscape. If you hike through Effigy Mounds, you’ll come across steep wooded bluffs, rolling hills and winding streams. The 2,526-acre monument features a unique topography and is home to a diverse array of wildlife and flora.
Unique to the area is its rich history dating to prehistoric times. The site preserves more than 200 prehistoric animal-shaped mounds constructed by American Indians between 2,500 and 700 years ago. Some mounds stand at an incredible 600 feet above sea level. This sacred place and its surrounding areas deserve to join the rest of America’s crown jewels as a national park.
And so, too, do Iowans deserve more than just a national monument. If Iowans want to go hiking at a national park, their closest option is the newly minted Indiana Dunes National Park, followed by Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota — six- and eight-hour drives from Des Moines. Many working Americans do not have the time nor resources to travel such great distances to enjoy and revel in America’s natural beauty. Nor should they have to. There is natural beauty in every corner of the country, not just in the West. Upgrading Effigy Mounds to national park status would finally designate this land for the purpose for which Schulte believed it was intended: a pleasure ground for the American people.
The case for a national park is evident: Membership would mean not only greater federal funding for preservation and research, but also greater national attention to the park, resulting in greater attendance and a boost to local economies. Effigy Mounds, and much of the surrounding areas, including the upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish refuge, are already in the hands of the National Park Service, which means this area would be a feasible and easy addition to the national park system.
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It is time to reevaluate whether Iowa should have its own national park, and to finally showcase the beauty of the upper Mississippi Valley to the rest of the world.
• Joe Schomberg is an Iowa native, and Alexa Perez is a regular Iowa visitor. Both are lawyers in Chicago and enjoy hiking at national parks.