Patience, diligence, energy and vision required

Steve Lekwa

My long-time friend, Mark, and I drove through the new Dakins Lake Park at Zearing yesterday. Many campers were already in place at the modern campground as families prepared to enjoy the holiday weekend. Some folks were fishing from one of the fishing jetties and others from a boat on the new and larger lake. New prairie plantings were starting to bloom around the constructed wetlands that filter some of the runoff that enters the new lake. We were both feeling a sense of satisfaction as we looked at a project that had been many years in the making. The organizations that we retired from, Story County Conservation and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, had again joined hands to bring this happy scene about. It took the active participation of many others as well, including the city of Zearing, the Story County Board of Supervisors, private organizations and individuals.

We were on the way back from a day of evaluating a newly abandoned rail corridor that extends from Marshalltown to north of Steamboat Rock, following the Iowa River over much of its course. It connects the communities of Albion, Liscomb, Union, Gifford and Eldora on the way. The trail planned for this corridor will be a joint project of the city of Marshalltown and the Hardin County Conservation Board. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation is helping to guide this large project through its planning phase, but like so many large projects before, many communities, organizations and individuals will need to come on board to bring this one to completion. Building a trail on top of graded railroad ballast rock is a pretty straightforward operation, but that’s the easy part. Converting many of the numerous wood beam trestles to trail use won’t be too difficult, either. At least a couple of the bridges, including a big one across the Iowa River, will require major renovation or even complete replacement, though. Funding is always an issue, and numerous other challenges will need to be overcome. Some will easily be foreseen and can be planned for, while others will doubtlessly arise that haven’t even been imagined yet. Our Heart of Iowa Nature Trail took many development phases over more than 20 years before a continuous trail was in place from Slater to Collins. The new Iowa River Trail will likely take years, too.

One of our tasks during our day on the trail was to identify native plant community remnants that might be restored and protected as the trail is being developed. We found several areas with degraded prairie that might be brought back to health with management and one area (so far) that is quite diverse and showy, with some less common plants present. We also found a few surviving examples of some less common trees and shrubs. The other task was to evaluate the many old trestles to see if we thought they could be converted to safe trail bridges using volunteer groups, as has been successfully done on some other trails around the state.

It will take Mark and me a couple of more days to complete our evaluation of the more than 30-mile rail corridor. I look forward to spending time in the field with an old friend and trust that the information we provide will help the trail’s developers plan a project that showcases that best that the area has to offer. The trail will eventually become a spectacular northern extension of the ever-expanding Central Iowa Trail System that’s already attracting national attention. It would be wonderful if I’m still around to ride that trail someday. Even if that doesn’t happen, I’m glad there are people out there with the patience, diligence, energy and vision to take on something as big as the Iowa River Trail.

Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.