Environmental Group Acquires More Than 830 Acres In Loess Hills To Protect From Development

May 30, 2019

An environmental group has bought a vast property in western Iowa’s Loess Hills. The purchase will allow them to preserve native prairie.

Some of Iowa’s last remaining prairie is in the Loess Hills. The Nature Conservancy in Iowa had been talking with a landowner, Gordon “Curly” Hummel, for decades about acquiring his 834-acre property in Plymouth County to preserve the landscape.

The conservancy’s Loess Hills Project Director, Graham McGaffin, says they were aware of some competing interests to convert the property to smaller parcels for a subdivision or use some of the Loess Hills dirt for construction needs.

“The high-quality prairie that’s here, we knew that would be a true loss if either of those outcomes occurred,” McGaffin said.

Hummel died in November 2017 and the conservancy worked with his family, their attorney and realtors to negotiate the purchase. They closed on the property for more than $2.5 million.

The property consists of lots of unbroken tallgrass prairie and dense woodland. It links two others – Stone State Park in Sioux City and Heendah Hills in Plymouth County, managed by the Iowa DNR. Combined, these make up almost 3,000 protected contiguous acres in the northern Loess Hills for migrating birds and other wildlife.

“It buffers two protected properties by the Iowa DNR so it’s kind of a puzzle piece in there,” McGaffin said. “But also it’s amazing to find a piece of ground not only that’s this large but has this amount of high quality native Loess Hills prairie.”

In the long term, they’ll gradually transfer the property, named the Hummel Tract, to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to manage. It could take three to five years before the DNR acquires the full property, McGaffin said.

The land won’t be able to be developed, a threat to wild areas in the state, said Doug Chafa, an Iowa DNR wildlife biologist at the Missouri River Wildlife Unit. The public will be able to hunt, hike and go birding there.

Chafa said people can expect to find grasshopper sparrows, upland sandpipers and northern harrier, as well as monarchs and bull snakes in the area. The properties’ connectivity will help sustain the species.

“The main thing for wildlife like that, that is room,” Chafa said, “the appropriate habitat and enough room to have a population, rather than just a single individual.”

A bill introduced in the legislature earlier this year would have cut off the Iowa DNR, county and local governments from using state funding to buy public lands for conservation and recreation. The bill was defeated. McGaffin said if the bill became law, the conservancy could have still purchased the property, but it would have stayed in their ownership.                                                                                

“The benefits for wildlife would still be there,” he said. “But it would not be eventually open to the public so the public benefits would’ve gone away."

More than 50 people joined the conservancy on Wednesday to hike to the property and celebrate the acquisition, which McGaffin said validated how important these wide, open space land areas are to the public. Rex Rundquist of Sioux City, one of the dozens of people who attended the hike, said he is excited about the land acquisition.

“It’s a beautiful thing to preserve,” Rundquist said.