Rewild Iowa? Really?

by Greg Costello

When I think of wildness, wild places, and wild things, the first images that come to mind are craggy peaks, vast forests, dark jungles, and large, charismatic creatures often imagined but seldom seen. I don’t think of Iowa.

Map of North America showing the Eastern, Western, Pacific, and Boreal Wildways envisioned by Wildlands Network.
Map of North America showing the Eastern, Western, Pacific, and Arctic/Boreal Wildways envisioned by Wildlands Network.

In the early days of Wildlands Network, our founders created the first maps of continental-scale wildways centered on swaths of land formed by the great mountain ranges: the Sierras and Cascades, the Rockies, and the Appalachians. Conspicuously absent were visionary wildlife corridors running through Iowa or other parts of the Midwest—a gaping hole in our planning efforts still today.

It seems that the Midwest’s historical exclusion was linked, at least in part, to two related and thought-provoking questions. First, where are the remaining wild things and places in this region that could most quickly be protected and linked together to promote wildlife connectivity? And, given the extent of the agricultural use for which the Midwest is famous (or infamous), is there enough wildness worth saving in Iowa and its neighboring states?

If you are from the Midwest and feel overlooked or offended, I understand. But rest assured that some folks who have long had an affinity to Wildlands Network and the deep ecology principles comprising our DNA have answered the latter question with an emphatic, “Hell, yes!” They further assert that, in our struggle to save wild Nature, it is not only possible, but necessary, to go into the belly of the beast—and that Iowa is, in fact, ground zero for rewilding.

Nature in Pieces

Mark Edwards is a retired trails coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, having had a 30-year career traveling the state. A supporter of wildness and Wildlands Network, he made an impassioned case for rewilding Iowa in a 2013 op-ed he wrote for the Ames Tribune. I’ve excerpted (and minimally edited) his compelling editorial below:

The basic foundation of ecology is that all life is directly related and mutually dependent. This means the more species diversity, the healthier the ecosystem and the healthier the individual. Simply said, we are all in this together. Our health and happiness are directly dependent on the health of the place we live. Don’t foul your own nest.

One way to illustrate this is by using a Department of Transportation map of Iowa. Lay it flat on a table. It represents 36 million acres. Rip off two-thirds of the map and put it behind you. This represents the number of acres planted each year in just two annual species—corn and soybeans—requiring petroleum, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and washing away soil to the sea.

Bright orange butterfly with black veins, on green foliage with a small white flower
Monarch butterfly. Photo: Bill Thompson, USFWS

Now remove three-fourths of what’s left of your map. This represents the 26% of Iowa used for other agricultural purposes such as hay, pasture, ponds, and farmsteads. In a matter of a few generations, 93% of our state has been transformed for agricultural purposes.The loss of species diversity is incomprehensible to us today.

From the portion left on the table, remove a piece the size of a CD case. This represents 6% of Iowa, or around 2 million acres that are covered in cities and roads. The size of the piece left on the table is smaller than the size of a check. It represents all public land—city parks, county, state and federal—or less than 3% of Iowa.

Looking closer at the remaining piece, we find it covered in thousands of parking lots, hundreds of miles of interior roads, artificial lakes, campgrounds, ballfields, toilets, playgrounds, sewage lagoons, golf courses, and picnic areas.

Hundreds of thousands of acres contain non-native species. A majority of our public land was also clear-cut, plowed, mined, and heavily grazed before being protected and allowed to heal. Easily, less than half of the public land, the size of a credit card, has little original biological integrity left.

Now cut the credit card into hundreds of small pieces and scatter them over the area of the original, uncut map. Not one of these pieces of public land can maintain its existing species, as they are isolated and disconnected from the whole, much like we are. In relationship to the health of our homeland, it matters little whether the land is private or public. It does matter how it is used.

Our health is not measured by the price of corn but by the company we keep.

Perhaps now we better understand why Wildlands Network chose not to plant its initial seeds of rewilding in Iowa; the challenge of healing this landscape is daunting indeed. Yet, as Edwards put it, “our health is not measured by the price of corn but by the company we keep.” Citing Iowa as the most biologically altered state in the nation, he urges us to “carefully consider the debates over soil loss, ethanol, water quality, and voluntary conservation practices within a richer, wilder story of ecology.”

Bridging the Rewilding Gap

If we are to redefine humans’ relationship with Nature and, in the words of Wallace Stegner, build “a society to match the scenery,” then we must absolutely take on this challenge in Iowa and the Midwest.

Our organization’s founders focused on mountain ranges, but the Midwest hosts the great river systems of the Mississippi and the Missouri. Cougars returning to the Eastwill have to make their way along these and other regional rivers as they disperse from the Dakotas. Their journeys will be successful only if they are granted a measure of respect and protection by the citizens of Iowa, and Nebraska, and the other Midwestern states—many of whom currently view them as vermin to be shot on sight.

Close-up of large tan cat with yellow eyes, walking among rock and leaves
Cougars returning to the East will need to move through Midwestern landscapes like this one as they disperse from the Dakotas. Photos: Preston Keres, USDA  (aerial); Larry Master (cougar)

Likewise, if we want monarch butterflies and other pollinators to persist, and clean freshwater to flow through and sustain our continent, we must rewild Iowa and the Midwest.

And if we want to encourage the majority of Americans to nurture a healthier human relationship with Nature, we cannot rely solely on the progressive cities dotting our East and West coasts. We must also reach out to the people, including youth and millennials, inhabiting the states in the middle.

Wildlands Network will take an important baby step in this direction later in 2018. In the months to come, we plan to work with Mark and other like-minded rewilding advocates to organize a fall gathering of Iowan conservationists and other citizens to strategize around how we can begin to restore, reconnect, and rewild Iowa and beyond.

The prospect of rewilding Iowa makes me think of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” To paraphrase, if we can rewild Iowa, we can rewild anywhere. It’s up to us.