Recreation IS Conservation - Five(ish) Years of Motor Motor

One of the things I love most about working for the Clayton County Conservation Board is that it’s a mission-driven organization, but also an organization that recognizes how many paths one can take to meet those goals. So it was that the Motor Motor Trail Run, a poorly-formed (at the time) and potentially silly (then and now) idea became one of my favorite parts of our event calendar each year.

Five years ago, shortly after starting here, I asked my boss if we could host a trail run. I had selfish motivations as a trail runner. I wanted to try to grow the sport around here where I saw and still see enormous potential for an endeavor that favors rugged jaunts through wild spaces on primitive, challenging trails. I also saw an opportunity with the beautiful, uncrowded trails surrounding the Motor Mill Historic Site. I’d lived in McGregor in a previous life and even visited the Mill, but I had never realized before working for the CCCB that the historic site also featured some truly splendid hiking trails.

Ultimately, I just wanted more people to know about the trails. But it also provided a real opportunity to give something to the community and further our mission at the same time. Maybe, just maybe, by hosting a race where we introduced people to these hiking trails, we could also raise some money to build more hiking trails. I didn’t know what to expect that first year. The CCCB hadn’t hosted a race in a few years. I had never organized a race at all, having all my experience on the other side of the starting line. There's plenty of 5K's around here in the warmer months, but very few trail runs. Initially this seemed like a benefit. But before I hit "send" on the first press release, I began to think, "Maybe there's a reason for that." I had no idea if there were many runners in the area who would appreciate or even tolerate some 900 feet of climbing in 3.1 miles.

But lo and behold, a handful of registrations came in right after we sent out the first press release. Hurrah! We had runners! Little by little, more registrations came in, until we had about 72 participants toeing the line for that first run. In the end, we raised almost $1200 which, along with a sizeable grant from the Wellmark foundation, went towards the hiring of a crew from the Conservation Corps of Iowa (Americorps) to build the primitive, singletrack Well's Hollow trail at Bloody Run County Park.

Before & after of the Well's Hollow trail

The runners had fun, and we got to check off a big box from our long-range plans. Not every idea we have works, but it sure felt like this one did. We decided to do it again. And then we've decided to do it every year thereafter - at least whenever pandemics didn't intervene.

Each year we've picked a different project to highlight with the running of Motor Motor. After completing the Well's Hollow trail, we set our sights on updates to the Osborne Nature Center. The Upper Mississippi Gaming Corporation did the heaviest lifting in terms of funding the improvement, but Motor Motor provided that crucial first-money-in that makes finding match for future grant writing so, so much easier.

Augmented reality sandbox, part of the Osborne nature center updates

With some improved interpretation, we sought to make better homes for the live reptiles and amphibians at Osborne with the following year's race. Again, runners and walkers came through and made some ambitious updates to the animals' habitats possible.

Happy turtles with more space to roam and heat to bask

Our most recent run (in 2019) put the proceeds towards the construction of the Motor Mill trail itself. While the race funds provided a drop in the bucket compared to the overall cost of the project, every little bit counted and in the end made the trail itself possible.

So it was especially delightful to host 2021's 10K race on the newly-constructed trail, making the event the "grand opening" and watching the runners, who in no small sense built the trail, become the first members of the public to use it.

Jacob Jansen, Motor Mill Trail neighbor and Motor Motor 10K winner

Let's take a look at the Clayton County Conservation Board mission statement and see how neatly Motor Motor fits in.

"The mission of the Clayton County Conservation Board is to promote the health and general welfare of the people; and to encourage preservation, conservation, education and recreation through responsible use and appreciation of our natural resources and cultural heritage."

Well, running in general is pretty good for the health and general welfare of people even though it often doesn't feel like it in the moment. The race itself has provided funds that have made for happier, healthier animals, including two timber rattlesnakes which are endangered in Iowa. Sounds like preservation and conservation. The updated exhibits at Osborne have provided an improved educational experience for thousands of visitors since completion. The new trails built in part with race proceeds have added to the recreational offerings in our county parks.

As for the responsible use and appreciation of our natural resources and cultural heritage, well, I can't think of a more exemplary activity than a trail run at Motor Mill. The site itself tells an unforgettable story of the last 150 years in the valley of the turkey river. Runners leave only footprints - we never have to clean up litter after the run - on the trails, speaking to their responsible use of this amazing space. In terms of appreciation, the look on participants' faces when they cross the finish line says it all.

Smile because it happened, but also because it's over.

Now, I'm not trying to pat ourselves on the back with this little exercise. I walk through it only to highlight the immense value of the right kind of recreational development in meeting conservation goals. Freeman Tilden, the father of interpretation, observed that "...through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection."

His quote refers to the art of making meaningful experiences for park visitors by way of guided tours, signage, and the like - separate from but related to education. Clearly, recreational exploits can become opportunities for understanding and meaningful engagement with natural resources as well.

Two generations gaining understanding and appreciation in bluff country

We wanted to highlight the trails at Motor, and help visitors understand they existed. In doing so, we have (hopefully) helped many people better appreciate the resource. Through their appreciation has come improved protection of Clayton County's natural resources as a whole.

It's a simple equation. People tend not to care about things with which they do not directly engage. That's not a dig, it's simply human nature. We care more about water quality when the fishing gets bad or an algae bloom closes a beach during the summer. We care more about a woodland when it fills us with the joy of blooming flowers and abundant wildlife.

But people also engage in different ways. Not everyone is a sign reader. Not everyone is a birdwatcher or a botanical enthusiast. Trail runners, rock climbers, hunters, paddlers... All of these people depend on recreation to find their "why" when it comes to protecting public lands. Think of it like a pollinator garden. You want to design it so that it has flowers blooming from early spring to late fall to accommodate the widest range of pollinators, including those highly specialized creatures who favor only very specific plants. The more species you can accommodate, the more resilient the garden.

Photo of the Motor Mill south unit prairie by Lucy Sharp, MM5K runner