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Eating An Elephant

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."

-The Talmud

At the end of January we conservation board employees from across the state met in Coralville for "Winterfest," an annual conference with presentations on everything from botany to wildlife management to playground design and leadership strategies.

By the end of the conference my head is pounding with an overload of information. Bouncing from one program to the next I'm overcome with feelings of hope, fascination, motivation, fear, and regret.

I feel hope talking with colleagues, each of us manning our own little oar on the raft of conservation and getting a little stronger with each pull. Fascination abounds in the detailed stories of botanizing in the Loess Hills, documenting the unique flora of one of Iowa's most thoroughly botanized biomes.

I feel motivation from keynote speakers telling stories of adventure on the nigh-uncharted Churchill River in Canada. Fear in some whispered discussions of legislative updates. Regret when some updated best practices make me wish I could take back a few days in the field.

I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. It feels at times like pushing through a wet prairie, pricked by a thistle one moment and delighted by a delicate foxglove the next.

One particular presentation gave me a little taste of every emotion all at once. Tivon Feeley, forest health program manager for the Iowa DNR, gave an in-depth presentation on Iowa's forest health issues.

His talk ranged from hopelessness, in the case of Emerald Ash Borer - a pest with a high likelihood of rendering ash trees functionally extinct in Iowa's woodlands - to "hey, that doesn't sound so bad," in the case of spongy moths (formerly gypsy moths). I'd perceived the latter as a sword-of-Damocles hanging over our oak woodlands, but in reality it is a manageable pest, provided adequate detection timing.

He also dove into the abiotic forest health factors, starting with Iowa's multi-year drought. It's his suspicion that a lot of the pest issues we're observing presently are part of a relatively natural pest cycle, merely spiking right now because many trees don't have the resources to defend themselves on the parched landscape.

Last but not least, he talked about the impact of the derecho in 2020. The high winds proved downright apocalyptic to canopy cover in the storm's path, but technically speaking apocalyptic wind events have occurred throughout the entire history of Iowa's forests. Foresters refer to these as "stand replacement events," essentially upending the slow, methodical process of forest succession and setting the stopwatch back to zero.

The problem this time comes from invasive species. The myriad problem children in Iowa's woodlands seemed daunting before, and with the overstory out of the way the problem only looks to get worse - invasive species often thrive on disturbance, and now the honeysuckle and multiflora rose is soaking up all the sunshine it can get.

Tivon has some well-founded concern about the lack of resources available to control the explosion, already underway. But I see some reason for hope: unlike sudden white oak death, a disease for which foresters have yet to find a clear etiology, we technically know how to deal with most invasive species.

We just have to remember the best way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

I can't tell you how many landowners I have talked to who had issues with Japanese barberry or buckthorn or whatever else in their woods. I explain that they can and will succumb to steady, continual treatments of many kinds - mechanical, chemical, fire, goats, etc. But it will take time.

I try to gently remind them that it's not complicated, but it's not easy either. We don't have a magic bullet to replace garlic mustard with spring beauty overnight.

Inevitably, they shake their head. "This stuff is everywhere," they say.

That's looking at the whole elephant. I have done that frequently myself, especially when I first started practicing stewardship. That perspective makes it very, very easy to just give up.

We have to remember that a Deus-Ex-Foresta probably isn't coming. Those invasive species will not likely disappear on their own.

The whole thing gets much more achievable when you take the time to make a plan. Set goals. Think realistically, and think long term. If you have a 40 acre woodland overrun with multiflora rose, you will drive yourself to madness saying "this year I'm getting that stuff out." Say instead something more like "I'm clearing out the 10 feet along the treeline this fall," or "I'm widening out this deer path so I can access the interior of the infestation."

One of the most successful restoration projects I have seen is the Codfish Hollow Prairie in Jackson County. Iowa Prairie Network founder and conservation champion Ray Hamilton purchased the property because it had a small patch of remnant prairie in the 1980's. Each year, Ray set out to cut back a wall of sumac and dogwood, diligently painting each stump with herbicide in small swaths every year.

After 30 years, he now has one of the finest and most extensive remnant prairies in eastern Iowa.

Stewards also like to say "start with the good spots first," and I've noticed that's counterintuitive to a lot of people. Thinking back to multiflora rose, it's easy to think the less-infested areas can wait; better to tackle the thicket that's so brutal one can hardly even reach the base of the shrub with a saw. That would make sense in a medical triage setting, and a highly-impaired woodland can feel like a patient bleeding out in the ambulance. But think about how degradation works in ecology. The less degraded sites will likely respond much better, much more quickly, to a given treatment. The natives haven't totally languished yet. Getting these good spots to great first will provide a core area for desirable flora and fauna to spread into the highly degraded sites as those get treated down the road.

More importantly, those easier battles give you the psychological fuel to charge into the harder ones later. You will see what a little elbow grease can do, and it will give you the motivation to apply a little more. That success provides crucial spiritual nourishment.

Trust me, you will need those small wins to keep going. String enough of them together, and before you know it, the elephant has been eaten.

Looking Back

To start off the new year we got pounded with a little bit of winter, which seems like a distant memory now...

But it was enough to delay REAP congress for the first time in the 32-year history of the program. The congress meets every two years at the state house, where delegates from the 18 regional reap assemblies relay the message from the public on what's desired from the REAP program in the coming legislative session. REAP (Resource Enhancement and Protection) has been one of the most successful pieces of conservation legislation in Iowa's history, but there's always room to do better. First created in 1990, the code allows legislature to fund up to $20 million, but not once has the program received that full funding.

The congress motions, as it always has, to fully fund the program. Additional motions passed recommending even more funding, since $20 million meant more in 1990 than it does today.

Even if you missed the assemblies, you can still contact your state representatives and senators to express your desire that this phenomenal tool to improve Iowa's parks, prairies, forests, soils, waterways, and environmental education be fully supported by this legislature.

Switching from bureaucracy to beauty, we had the legendary Larry and Margaret Stone come to Osborne on January 17th for a talk on Canoeing the Voyageurs Highway. The auditorium was packed to hear the story of their 109-day adventure paddling through Canada, replete with stunningly gorgeous photographs of an unforgettable journey in 1978.

Many thanks to Larry, Margaret and all who came out to live vicariously! Looking Forward

On February 9th, author Jay Goodvin will come to Osborne for his presentation Rural Iowa Sausage: History and Tradition of Brats on the Back Roads! This fascinating deep-dive into the world meat production before the days of Kwik Star and Walmart.

On February 16th, Naturalist Abbey will be leading an Owl Prowl here at Osborne Park! The program will start indoors with a look into the fascinating biology of Owls before venturing into the woods to see "whoot" might be lurking in the canopy.

Finally, on February 17th, we partner with district forester Dave Asche for a Winter Tree & Plant ID walk at the Motor Mill Historic Site! If you've ever wondered how foresters can identify a tree with no leaves, this is the place for you. Dave is an endless font of wisdom with decades of experience wandering Iowa's woods. You won't want to miss it.

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