Hitchcock Nature Center continues to expand with Pottawattamie County’s recent acquisition of more than 90 acres along the eastern side of the nature preserve.
The land, nestled along Ski Hill Loop where it intersects with Page Lane, belonged to longtime Honey Creek resident Doris Ferguson, who died last year at age 89. She had told her children, all of whom were raised in the small brick house Doris and her husband Don had built in the 1960s, that she wanted the land to go to the county. Specifically, she wanted her land to become a part of the Hitchcock Nature Center.
“She had mentioned in her will, and in her later years, that one of her wishes was to be able to provide that land for other people to use, to be able to have a natural setting, like it was back in the early history of the county,” said Mark Ferguson, the oldest of Doris and Don’s three children.
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Originally from Brooklyn, Doris “just fell in love with the land and the animals and all of the old things that nature has to bring” when she and Don moved to Council Bluffs, Mark said.
“I think that became her passion for all of the years that she was able to live on the earth,” he said.
On Tuesday, Nov. 22, the Pottawattamie County Board of Supervisors voted to approve the purchase of the Ferguson land, 93 acres in total, for $1,175,000.
While the land will belong to Pottawattamie Conservation and Hitchcock, the county is fronting the money for the purchase, which Conservation is hoping to pay back with federal and state grants and private donations. Ultimately, the county will only be responsible for 10% of the purchase price.
Pottawattamie Conservation Natural Resource Specialist Chad Graeve had spoken with Doris many times over the years about the county purchasing the land should she ever decide to sell.
“I met with Doris Ferguson in 1998 and I explained to her, ‘Hey, we’re interested in creating this preserve. Your land has high quality natural areas on it. We would like to include it,’” Graeve said.
Graeve explained that the county would not be able to pay more than the appraised value, but the land would be a valuable addition to the nature preserve.
“At the time of settlement, 85% of Iowa was tall grass prairie, and now we have less than one-tenth of 1%,” Graeve said. “But the majority of what does exist is in the Loess Hills, because it’s so rugged and they didn’t plow it all up.”
The first parcel of land acquired by Pottawattamie County that would become the Hitchcock Nature Center was about 500 acres that had been home to a YMCA camp from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. After a brief ownership by a developer who wanted to first build a bottled water factory, and then a landfill when the factory fell through, the county purchased the land in 1991 and set about the task of preserving what little natural land was left in the state.
Nationally, Iowa ranks 49 out of 50 states in the amount of available public land, Graeve said. And Pottawattamie County, which is the second largest county in the state, ranks 45 out of 99 counties.
Much of the nature center consists of the Loess Hills, prairie land so unique that it only exists in one other place in the world — China, along the Yellow River.
In 1997, Pottawattamie County created a land acquisition plan “that basically said there are surrounding properties that have high quality natural areas, and we have an opportunity to create a small preserve in the Loess Hills that we think we can manage in a way that will function ecologically,” Graeve said.
The goal was to acquire 2,200 acres of land around Hitchcock.
“We are trying to assemble a preserve that we can manage in a way that will function ecologically, so that we can demonstrate to people that, number one, the land is not healthy and it’s because of what we humans have done to it,” Graeve said. “There was a time when humans related to the land differently, and the land was very healthy and provided everything that people needed to live. And the reality is the land still does provide everything that we need.”
Since the purchase of the former campgrounds in 1991, the county has made 11 additional land purchases to expand the nature preserve, and with the 93 acres of Ferguson land, the total is just shy of 1,500, and slightly more than two-thirds of the way to the goal.
Doris Ferguson wanted her family’s land to be in good hands, and her son is confident that it is.
“We feel that the county, especially Chad, I give a lot of credit to, because he really takes care of (it); he’s a good steward of the land and that was important to mom for sure,” Mark said. “She just wants people to be good stewards of the land, and I would suggest people think about donating, if they can, to (Pottawattamie Conservation), to be able to preserve land for future generations.”
In addition to the land itself, the Ferguson purchase also comes with the small brick house that Mark and his brother John and sister Amy grew up in. Rather than tear the house down, Conservation is going to put it to good use.
“It’s very low maintenance and it is going to suit our needs perfectly,” Graeve said. “We hire seasonal staff, and they come from around the country to gain experience working in the Loess Hills. Some of them are helping with education efforts, some are helping with my land management efforts, some are helping different park operations, but, you know, they get paid a meager wage and it’s hard for them to afford to rent in the area. So we’re now going to be able to provide short term housing for these seasonal employees.”
The Loess Hills also hosts scientists from around the country who come here to study the conservation and preservation efforts, and now they’ll have a place to stay, too.
“It’s a little incentive to get them over here to do their research and help us understand the impact that we’re having on this natural system,” Graeve said.
Ultimately, Graeve hopes that, in addition to enjoying nature, visitors to the Hitchcock Nature Center come away with a better understanding of not only how humanity has impacted the natural world, but also why it matters.
“The way humans relate to the land is really important for the health of the land,” Graeve said. “And the health of the humans.”