Seeking Wildness in Iowa

by Rebecca Hunter

Our plane dipped beneath the clouds as we dropped into Des Moines, the gold-and-emerald patchwork beneath us knit together like a two-toned tetris grid. The squares were confined by straight-line roads on right angle edges, as if they were pencil marks drawn with an engineer’s ruler. Houses dotted the corner of each plot of land, like peas in the back forty of a frozen dinner tray. And branching rivers bisected the landscape, their aimless curves boring through the neat geometry of row crops and roads.

Birds-eye view of a farmed landscape broken up into squares of brown and green
Iowa from the sky. Photo: Preston Keres, USDA

My eyes scanned the landscape for wilderness amid the agricultural monotony, my professional mission suddenly seeming a bit more daunting given the fragmented sea of farmland below. Greg Costello and I were visiting Iowa on behalf of Wildlands Network to explore opportunities for reconnecting habitats in the region, and to meet with local conservationists who care deeply about its ecological future.

From my bird’s eye view, Iowa’s flatness gave me the impression of looming vastness.

Upon our final descent into the airport, the Des Moines suburbs sprouted from the fringes of farmlands in an orderly cluster of raised ranch houses and kelly green baseball diamonds—their dirt scrubbed clean by the midday sun. We glided over pristine white sidewalks with tidy oak trees lined up in new full-leaf for summer. From my bird’s eye view, Iowa’s flatness gave me the impression of looming vastness, its unobscured horizons suggesting an unbroken chain of brown and green tiles extending eastward all the way to the mighty Mississippi, and westward to the Missouri River.

Iowa’s geography was a new fascination to me. Growing up among the green hills and rocky coastal areas of Connecticut, I was far removed from the agricultural system of the Midwest. Over the next few days, I heard from Iowan farmers and other experts in what amounted to a crash course in modern agriculture.

Big Agriculture 101

It turns out those never-ending crop fields I imagined from the air aren’t too far from reality. I’ve since learned that farms make up 92% of Iowa’s landbase, and that, according to the Farmland Information Center 2012 Census of Agriculture, Iowans farm an astounding 30,622,731 acres. These 30 million-plus acres are divided across 3 primary uses: concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), corn production, and soybean production.

A road splits a photo of yellow and green crop fields reaching into the distance
A landscape divided, near Van Horne, Iowa. Photo: Tom Zittergruen

Nearly all of Iowa’s major agricultural products are exported. The vast majority of the pork is sent to China, and the corn and soybeans are converted into animal feed and ethanol shipped around the world. Despite Iowa’s abundant agricultural yield, however, its current agricultural system is inefficient at feeding people. A 2013 article in Scientific American notes that “with the current allocation of corn to ethanol and animal production [in Iowa], we end up with an estimated 3 million calories of food per acre per year, enough to sustain only three people per acre. That is lower than the average delivery of food calories from farms in Bangladesh, Egypt and Vietnam.”

Not surprisingly, agriculture is Iowa’s dominant economy, and exporting crops provides a major dividend; in 2016, soybeans contributed $3.1 billion to the state’s economy. At least in the short term, intensive farming can be lucrative for the farmer. From 1995–2016, farmers received $29.8 billion in agricultural subsidies from the government. This big money propels big agriculture and the newest advances in farming technology, like increasingly aggressive pesticides, more efficient combines, and tile drainage systems.

Massive investments in agricultural technology push farmers and manufacturers to increase productivity. These investments also drive research on how to make natural systems grow more and grow faster—and rarely prioritize sustainability. The result? Mounting tensions between farmers and environmentalists regarding the future of land and water use in Iowa.

Photo obviously taken from the road, showing huge agricultural field with green water tower in the distance
Water tower outside of Madrid, Iowa. Photo: Rebecca Hunter

Environmentalists have good reason to be concerned—as do all citizens. Centuries of unsustainable land cultivation in Iowa has created ecological problems that threaten wildlife and human health. For example, nitrates and phosphates from pesticides are contaminating watersheds at steadily increasing and dangerous levels.

Orange butterfly with black and white markings on a pink flower.
Monarch butterfly are essential pollinators at-risk. Photo: Ron Holmes, USFWS

study conducted at the University of Iowashowed 2013–2016 as having the largest nitrate loads in the historical record for both the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers. Iowa’s rivers are also polluted by topsoil runoff, and the removal of trees from steep slopes has exacerbated erosion and flooding. Among other agriculture-related threats, invasive species have triggered biodiversity loss, and habitat degradation has led to a staggering 80% decline in monarch butterflies—essential pollinators—over the past 2 decades.

Rivers Run Through It

Learning some of the numbers behind Iowa’s booming agriculture and environmental crises helped me contextualize the conversations I had with environmentalists in Des Moines. I now better understand the environmentalists’ frustrations and the tooth-and-nail battles they fight against big-ag lawmakers to protect land, water, and wildlife.

Each person Greg and I talked to struggled with how to change Iowan hearts and minds about conservation, and how to inspire more stewards of Iowa’s land. Across the board, nearly all of the groups we met with agreed that clean water was contentious, and that conservation initiatives that safeguard clean water (while also protecting species) might garner popular support. Naturally, then, Iowa’s rivers are an ideal focus for connectivity planning.

A river is a looking glass that reflects the health of a place and its native plants and animals.

A river is a looking glass that reflects the health of a place and its native plants and animals. A clean, free-flowing river is a symbol of vitality and a sustainable resource for human communities. Murky and stagnant rivers, on the other hand, indicate poor ecosystem health. Iowa’s rivers are a life-sustaining resource, and nutrient pollution jeopardizes the health of all the life forms they support.

In 2012, the Iowa Natural Resource Conservation Service released a series of conservation opportunity maps for the state in the Priorities for Conservation Actionschapter of the Iowa Wildlife Action Plan. One such map recommends priority areas for cooperative conservation action, many of them associated with the state’s rivers. The map shows a high density of priority areas located along the Mississippi River, and along the lower Cedar River in the southeastern part of the state.

County map of the state of Iowa with colorful shading
2012 Department of Natural Resources map showing opportunity areas for cooperative conservation in Iowa. The highest densities of priority areas are linked to several river corridors.
Aerial view of a river cutting through a treed and farmed landscape
Cedar River. Photo: Charles Kremenak
Close-up of a colorful, spotted duck on very blue water
Blue-winged teal, Desoto National Wildlife Refuge, Iowa. Photo: Dave Menke, USFWS

Riparian corridors are essential flyways for neo-tropical migratory birds like bobolinks, blue-winged teal, and cerulean warblers. They also provide movement corridors for mountain lions and other wide-ranging mammals, and host diverse aquatic species like frogs and box turtles. The Missouri and Mississippi rivers alone are fed by tributaries and rivers from 31 states in the U.S., binding ecosystems and providing essential habitat for migrating species.

Thinking bigger picture, it might be useful to envision large-scale connectivity that encompasses not only Iowa’s rivers, but the rivers and tributaries across the Midwest that feed the Missouri and the Mississippi. Why confine conservation to a box when state borders are irrelevant to rivers and the wildlife traveling within and alongside them?

Human hand holding a hand-sized turtle with an orange eye
Ornate box turtle, Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge, Iowa. Photo: Alexander L. Galt, USFWS

Trusting Wildness in Iowa

During my discussions in Iowa, I began to see a dichotomy forming in my mind, with agriculture and conservation at 2 opposite poles. Given the economic and political power of big agriculture in Iowa, how could large-scale conservation succeed without a fundamental paradigm shift regarding resource use? How does river connectivity fit into Iowa’s big ag framework? Among our most converted landscapes, how can we inspire people to subscribe to a different land-use narrative? I pondered these questions throughout my trip, dwelling on the philosophy of nature and human domain as a good starting point.

Close-up of large tan cat with yellow eyes, walking among rock and leaves
A wandering cougar. Photo: Larry Master

At one of our meetings, Joe McGovern, Executive Director at Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, had an interesting way of reconciling these competing forces of agricultural development and conservation. He emphasized that, in Iowa’s overwhelmingly cultivated landscape, focusing on recapturing wildness, not restoring wilderness, might help redefine a region so entrenched in an agricultural narrative.

To trust wildness is to know the history of a place.

The concept of “wildness,” as Joe referred to it, is a feeling contained in one’s mind—the pervasive spirit of nature that exists regardless of physical surroundings. To trust wildness is to know the history of a place, both ecological and mythical, and to carry that place and feeling with you everywhere you go.

In The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder writes that wildness is abiding where wilderness is ever-changing: “Wilderness may temporarily dwindle, but wildness won’t go away.” Snyder further proclaims that wildness is everywhere, from industrial yards to the inside of our guts, unbound by the character of the landscape. He writes that wildness is:

ineradicable populations of fungi, moss, mold, yeasts, and such that surround and inhabit us. Deer mice on the back porch, deer bounding across the freeway, pigeons in the park, spiders in the corners…inhabiting the fertile corners of the urban world in accord with the rules of wild systems, the visible hardy stalks and stems of vacant lots and railroads, the persistent raccoon squads, bacteria in the loam and in our yogurt.

I would argue that the river is both the wildness and the wilderness that Snyder talks about—a symbol of self-willed and unencumbered freedom, both permanent and impermanent. Indeed, there is a duality to rivers. Permanence: Carved out of the earth across vast geologic time, captured by cartography, their banks spawning some of the earliest civilizations on the planet. But rivers are impermanent, too. Water moves ephemerally, flowing and cycling away like quicksilver before our eyes. Water levels change, and the movement and speed of water is constantly in flux between days and seasons.

Birds-eye view of a large city next to a river
Aerial photo of Dubuque, Iowa (L), the Mississippi River, and Illinois from 10,000 feet Photo: Preston Keres, USDA

In a state with scant remaining wilderness, perhaps Iowans need to trust wildness, a commodity that can’t be bought, sold, or diminished. To trust wildness is to be rooted in the natural processes of the environment, to trust in the resiliency of nature. It is to see wildness in the rabbit hopping through the backyard, or in the red-winged blackbirds nesting in the culvert next to the shopping mall. And to feel communion with the other creatures we live with and among.

To put stake in our rivers is to trust wildness—to stop impeding them with pollutants, dams, and engineering, and to cede control to the river itself.

Silhouetted birds on water against a sun setting behind trees
Snow geese at sunrise, Desoto National Wildlife Refuge, Iowa. Photo: David Menke, USFWS