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The Hard Work of Healthy Habitats

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

One of the great challenges we all have working for the Clayton County Conservation Board lies in describing what we do. I could point you to our mission statement –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. But that doesn’t say much about our day-to-day.

The native wildlife exhibit, the nature center, the campgrounds, the trails, public programming, and classroom visits provide salient examples of some of the work we do. But many of our efforts to protect Clayton County’s natural resources, and provide for the health and wellbeing of its citizens and visitors, takes place without much fanfare, obvious only to those with a keen eye for conservation and a recognition of how much work “natural areas” require.

So it occurs to me that, as we look hopefully forward to 2021, perhaps I should take the opportunity to celebrate some of the behind-the-scenes accomplishments from the last year, ill-fated as it may have been.

We performed prescribed burns on over 70 acres spread across the Motor Mill Historic Site, Osborne Park, Chicken Ridge, Bloody Run, and the Becker East & West wildlife areas. Prescribed burns take a lot of planning before and after, but have unparalleled efficiency in controlling invasive species and improving biodiversity.

Prescribed burn at Becker West wildlife area

We performed timber stand improvements on 30 acres divided between Osborne, Motor Mill, and the Becker wildlife areas. The improvements mostly targeted savanna restorations – open woodlands characterized by widely-spaced oaks and a prairie understory.

Understory clearance at Becker West

One unique project at Osborne focused on a specific creature, the ruffed grouse. Ruffed grouse depend on aspen trees for their winter food supply. Aspens typically denote a “young” forest, growing in clonal colonies that, without further disturbance, will age out quickly and become replaced by more shade-tolerant species like maple and basswood. Since many of Clayton County’s timber do not receive active disturbance, these young forests have begun to disappear, and so have the grouse.

However, we have enjoyed a few sightings at Osborne in recent years, giving urgency and specificity to a forestry treatment that will support their population. We clear cut the aspens, left the downed trees in place as “drumming logs,” and have watched with delight as the cut trees send up thousands of “suckers,” young trees that pop up from the roots following a disturbance to the main stem. In fifteen years or so, the suckers will have matured, and we start the process over again.

In further reforestation efforts, we planted some 250 oak seedlings across 10 acres of timber that was destroyed by a windstorm in 2015. Many of these seedlings will succumb to deer pressure, to be sure, but it’s a reminder than in nature, destruction often presents a golden opportunity to start fresh.

Looking even earlier in the plant life cycle, we were able to seed over 20 acres of public land with native grasses and wildflowers, thanks in no small part to assistance from the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Clayton County chapter of Pheasants Forever. We look forward to seeing a flourishing native understory at Bloody Run, Becker West, and Motor Mill as a result of the time spent laboriously tromping through the snow and timber slash to seed all this territory by hand. A light skiff of snow made it easy to see where we'd covered, and by timing it ahead of last week's snowstorm the seed will be protected from hungry birds and slowly drilled into the soil by freeze-thaw cycles on the barren ground underneath.

Becker West savanna restoration seeding area

Turning to the waters, we have successfully improved fish habitat on three different water bodies, thanks in no small part to assistance from the Iowa DNR’s fish habitat program. The Osborne pond once again has been stocked with bluegill and largemouth bass. The pond was dug deeper to better support overwintering, and hopefully 10 acres of newly planted prairie and a retaining pond will keep the “new” Osborne pond from filling in so quickly. The water flowing into the pond has startling clarity, and the rapidity with which the fish have multiplied makes for a vivid testament to what the right kind of habitat work can do.

Newly-planted Osborne Pond prairie

Similarly, along the Osborne nature trail, anglers can now enjoy a bounty of smallmouth along the Volga River, where grant funds paid for the installation of boulder clusters and rip-rap to stabilize the bank and provide habitat, along with a bench to improve angler access. During this summer’s low water, I took a look at the new habitat to see if I could find fish. To my surprise, the 150-foot stretch of bank was teeming with silvery flickers of life where, for years, I had seen only a barren and sandy riverbed. If you build it, they will come, as they say.

Volga river fish habitat project

Across the county at Bloody Run park, a similar project took place at one of the most popular angling accesses in all of trout country. The bank was shaped, natives planted to better absorb flood waters, and boulders and fish hides installed to provide cover for those trophy browns.

Bloody run county park trout habitat construction

This barely scratches the surface of our habitat restoration efforts, and leaves out entirely the more visible projects like the Motor Mill trail and the back 9 of the Osborne Disc Golf course. It leaves out the hundreds of pounds of invasive species removed from our prairies and forests. It leaves out the "routine" maintenance of campgrounds, pit toilets, and hiking trails that became a little more laborious this year. The fact that for all that sweat equity, our to-do list never seems shorter speaks to the volume of work left to be done.

That’s a good thing. Ecosystems are dynamic, and so are the people who depend on them, so the work is never done. The beautiful thing is that it’s not just us doing this work. It’s you. Every time you visit a Clayton County park, every time you buy a hunting or fishing license, you become a part of the effort to make Clayton County a more vibrant place.

There are a multitude of lessons to be learned from the ups and downs of 2020. Admittedly, we view things through a very specific lens, but the dramatic increase in visitation to our parks - and to public lands generally all across the nation - gave us all a lesson in the importance of wild spaces. These habitat projects aren't just for the birds and the bees. They're for humans, too. We need open space, and in 2020, we needed it in the worst way.

Hopefully, going into 2021 and beyond, we can heed that lesson and improve the fabric of nature all around us. Even after the imperatives of social distance and voluntary isolation have passed, I hope we can remember all that the land gave us this year when we needed it most, and we can find a way to repay that debt in the years to come.

Bloody Run at the very end of 2020

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