By Steve Weisman
Over the past few years, I have shared a lot of stories about the Iowa Great Lakes Watershed. Obviously it is a huge watershed – nearly 90,000 acres to be exact. What we have found is there are definite areas around the lakes that if they are protected by creating natural prairie and wetlands, they will help buffer and filter the water as it enters our lakes. Two recently completed projects that are “living” proof that this works are the Okoboji Vu project on the west side of West Okoboji and the Marble-Hottes Lakes Project on the northwest side of Big Spirit Lake. These projects have had a tremendously positive impact on the entire Lakes! Now a new project is underway: the Reeds Run Wildlife Area.
Reeds Run Wildlife Area
If you have ever driven along the east side of Big Spirit Lake and about .2 of a mile past Orleans Sunset Park and looked to the northeast, I am sure you have noticed the tall grass prairie. It covers 43 acres, comes within 500 feet of Big Spirit Lake at one point and contains a huge sub-watershed that is crucial for lake water quality.
A little background
Perhaps you know the story, but this property was originally owned by the Walrath family, who put the 43 acres into a range of conservation practices meant to protect the lake and to provide habitat for wildlife. When Mr. Walrath passed away, the land was donated to the United Methodist Church in Spirit Lake. They kept it as prairie and wildlife habitat, but around two years ago, not being in the land business, the church board discussed putting the property on the market.
According to Joe Ulman, a board member for the Spirit Lake Protective Association (SLPA), the SLPA was approached. “We were approached to see if the SPLA would be interested in helping keep the land as it was – in prairie. We were definitely interested, but we knew we would have to raise a considerable amount of money to be able to purchase the land. Plus, we knew that there were others interested in purchasing the land and developing it.”
The SLPA was definitely interested, but they knew it would take time to raise what turned out to be an appraised value amount of $450,000. Ulman says, “The church board gave us the time to see what we could do. We felt we could raise the funds, but we also knew we would need partners to help make this happen.”
First on board was the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. “They looked at the location of the land and its proximity to Big Spirit Lake and determined how crucial the property was to protect the lake. So, they became temporary owners of the property a little over a year ago and gave the SLPA a bridge loan until we could raise the funds. The expectations were for the local community to step forward to repay the loan.”
What the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation says
This is what the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation has on its website about the Reeds Run Wildlife Area. The restored wetlands, prairie and wildlife at this key location do much more than brighten the world for the neighborhood and those who enjoy the trail. This place is quietly helping to keep Big Spirit Lake clean, every day.
Water from this area has almost instant access to the lakes in a storm, with little time to filter out contaminants. By keeping this site natural rather than developed, an estimated 647 pounds of phosphorus is prevented from reaching the Iowa Great Lakes each year — and that means preventing thousands of pounds of algae from forming.
At the same time, this site provides a home for many kinds of life. Migratory birds especially rely on land like this at the lakes for food, water and nesting. Trail users, birders, wildlife enthusiasts and those seeking a quiet, beautiful spot will enjoy nature here at any time. Naturalist-led hikes and experiences will be offered here and Dickinson County Conservation will manage the prairie and wetlands to sustain wildlife as well as water quality benefits.
The project and the process
The next question was “who would own this 43-acre plot?” Ulman continues, “Well, we knew the SLPA was not into the business of owning land. The DNR was interested for its importance, but since the land is part of Orleans and has dwellings close to it and cannot be a hunting area, they chose not to purchase the land. However, we then approached the Dickinson County Conservation Board, and they agreed in principle to accept the property and to maintain it after the transaction was completed.”
Now, a year later, the SLPA has received great support from a wide range of sources. According to Ulman, “Right away we received $100,000 from the Dickinson County Water Quality Commission. Another legacy grant of $100,000 came from the Okoboji Foundation. In addition, the local Pheasants Forever became one of our donors. At the same time, numerous local individuals and businesses have also stepped up. At this point, we have raised 79 percent of our goal with another $75,000 to complete the project.”
As fundraising moves forward, the SLPA is going to continue having open houses and meetings to help the general public learn more about the Reeds Run Wildlife Area. The next event is an omelet breakfast at the Mini-Wakan Shelter House on the north end of Big Spirit Lake.
Ulman says, “We are planning an omelet breakfast on Saturday, August 12 from 9-11 a.m. We will have an open house that morning and will answer questions people might have about the Reeds Run Wildlife Area fundraiser. There will also be a variety of silent auction items on display. The breakfast is a free-will offering. Proceeds will go to the Reeds Run Wildlife Area. The SLPA will also have its annual meeting that morning.”
Following the meeting, Ulman encourages those in attendance to head to Preservation Plaza and take part in the Okoboji Blue Water Festival. “The SLPA will be one of the clean water organizations and so will the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.”
For those who want to donate to the project, pledge sheets will be available at the omelet breakfast and at the Okoboji Blue Water Festival. Contributions can also be sent to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation at 505 5th Avenue, Suite 444, Des Moines, IA. 50309. Donations can also be made online at www.inhf.org.