What Have We Done
When the first settlers arrived in Iowa, they were unable to express what they saw. As far as the eye could see, there were tall grasses, broken only by thick woodlands along creeks, rivers and around the lakes had no counterpart to what they saw in Europe. The important fact is that trees were here and as people began making Iowa their permanent home, they planted more trees around their properties. These trees provided shade, served as a windbreak, helped hold soil and some even served as food sources.
The landscape of Iowa has undergone a drastic change in the past 160 years. Iowa’s prairies, woodlands and wetlands all have been greatly reduced. Prairies have suffered the most destruction followed closely by the trees in our area. Of the 30 million acres of prairie that once covered Iowa during the time of settlement, less than one-tenth remains today.
Trees are also disappearing. There are very few creeks lined with trees since these have essentially been turned into open ditches across Iowa. Building sites are being torn down along with groves being ripped out shortly after. Mulberry trees, apple orchards, plum trees as well as others that gave people a food source are being ripped.
A person can stand in one spot and completely turn around and if lucky will see just a handful of trees. This may be my imagination, but the wind blows more now that the trees are gone and soil erosion is something we deal with in the late fall to early winter. You can see on the white snow that the dirt blows from one area to the next because the grasses that kept the soil in place are gone, except in certain protected areas and some private lands.
As a child, I don’t remember such seeing wide-open views or there being so much wind. I played on natural prairies, help bale natural prairie grasses to feed cattle and played games, hunted for treasure climbed many trees in groves throughout the area. I would inner tube down lazy flowing streams beneath canopied areas of trees and think, “This must be what it was like to be a pioneer” and I was wrong. The landscape wasn’t even close.
This is the same land that at one time sustained an abundance of plant and animal life that may or may not make a comeback to our area. Plants that at one time flourished on the Iowa prairie included Big Bluestem grass, Indian grass, Switch grass, Black-eyed Susan, Prairie Coneflower, Butterfly milkweed and Prairie Sage to name a few.
The open grasslands of Iowa contained a large variety of wildlife that was perfectly adapted to life on the prairie. Bison, elk, antelope and wolves once lived in our state. As the prairie was converted to farms, towns and roads, the wildlife became confined to the small remnants of prairie that remains. While some species adapted to life in road ditches, farm pastures and other areas of human development, others did not. The great bison herds once wandered through the tall grasses of the Iowa prairie, followed by wolf packs that preyed on the young and feeble. This at one time was a piece of the Iowa picture that will be forever missing.
In drainage law, trees cannot inhibit the natural flow of water and this is understandable. I do not understand why it is necessary to take out trees higher up on banks or what the purpose is of taking out groves and trees in fence lines. There might be a few more rows of crops giving the farmer a few more dollars in his pocket. I am not against the farmer or anyone creating the opportunity to make more money, but at what cost.
Vast prairies, beautiful wooded areas, dynamic wetlands and meandering rivers are all a part of Iowa’s heritage our heritage. We fail to remember, it was the land has helped create who and what we are today. The conservation efforts of local boards, state groups and national entities will help future generations see, if only small areas, what Iowa was once like.