Bur Oak Notes Fall/Winter 2023

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Advancing biodiversity in eastern Iowa by protecting resilient landscapes and connecting people to nature. WHO WE ARE BOARD OF DIRECTORS President Chris Jensen Past President Larry Weber Secretary Valerie Decker Ornate box turtles are threatened in Iowa. By caring for the habitat they depend on, innumerable species also benefit.

Treasurer Kate Reilly BOARD MEMBERS William Blair Charlotte Fairlie Rev. Don Hodson Joe Holland Ken Lowder Liz Maas Jack Moran

Letter from the director

STAFF Executive Director Jason Taylor Development Director Ashlee Hopkins Conservation Director Carter Johnson Land Steward Sarah Lawinger Communications + Program Director Meredith Roemerman

2023-2024 Stewardship Crew Leaders Jill Grime Dustin Roberts Crew Members Micah Land Hayden Martinez Nick Timmer Mizuki Wittmer Education and Monitoring Members Amanda Caraballo Amanda Stallman

In late September, a friend shared with me that they had found ornate box turtles on a piece of land in Iowa that they had just saved from development and are now working to manage as a natural area. In the grand scheme of the landscape, the property isn’t huge and has intensive pressure from invasive species. It is also an island, surrounded by highways, housing developments, tilled fields and urban construction that will only intensify in the future. Walking it for the first time, I could tell immediately how special it is and how critical it is to save. That feeling was only slightly dampened by the realization of how much work it was going to take to reverse the degradation that had been happening for decades. Jason Taylor So, why bother? Why put so much effort and Executive Director resources into protecting a particular piece of property, a particular population of turtles? For those who have been fortunate to actively manage land, the question is an easy one to answer but putting the reasoning into words can be hard. It’s simply the right thing to do, which is in opposition to the easy thing to do. Biologist E.O. Wilson sums it up succinctly by stating, “The protection of nature is fundamentally the protection of the species composing the ecosystems. Ecosystems in turn are built from relationships that may have required millions of years of evolution to mature.” It’s amazing to think that every natural space you visit is the culmination of thousands, if not millions of years, and every species protected strengthens the ecosystem. Fundamentally, this is why your support of the work we do to protect nature in Iowa is so important. It is incredibly easy for another parking lot to be approved and constructed, wiping out another tiny piece of nature. But to protect a property, to save the land upon which a population of turtles has lived for thousands of years, is a legacy, one that generations upon generations will benefit from in the future.

5 Sturgis Corner Drive, Suite 1250 Iowa City, Iowa 52246 buroaklandtrust.org | 319-338-7030

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Notes is sponsored by Iowa City Landscaping and Garden Center.

On the cover: Wildflowers sway in the late summer breeze at Kessler Prairie.

Things to do First Day Hike January 1

Fall Family Day October 12

Take a step into the new year with us at Turkey Creek Nature Preserve for this free hike.

Fall is a great time to get outside. Our free family day will include fun education stations and some other surprises for kids of all ages!

Belgum Groove JUNE 8 Prairie Preview & Pawpaws March 28 The free environmental summit returns next spring and brings organizations and the community together to network for a greener Iowa.

Join the jam at Belgum Grove Preserve. This free summer concert on the prairie features Crayfish Crawl a hike around the July 20 preserve and food Our free summer family from local vendors. event is full of fun! Splash around the creek, find some crayfish and learn about Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, plus ice cream!

Golden Hour October 17

Bur Oak’s annual ticketed fundraiser features food, art and tons of support for local conservation.

More details at buroaklandtrust.org or by scanning the QR code.

Tours & bioblitz surveys | Learn more about Bur Oak preserves and the wildlife of Iowa. Spring Ephemeral Wildflowers tour | April 13 | Big Grove Preserve Blooming Cactus Weekend tours | June 14-16 | Corriell Nature Preserve Preserve tour | July 13 | Kessler Prairie Pollinators tour | August 10 | Turkey Creek Nature Preserve

Letter from the president Welcome to this issue of Bur Oak Notes. As a longtime financial supporter, stewardship volunteer, and more recently board member, I am humbled to introduce myself as Bur Oak Land Trust’s newest board president. A native Iowan, I was brought up with a deep and abiding love of the natural world. My wife, Sheral and I have spent most of the past four decades living in Iowa City and raised four kids here who share our love of spending time Chris Jensen outdoors. Thus, not surprisingly, my Board President connection to Bur Oak, like many of you, began with family outings on trust lands (most often Turkey Creek and later Big Grove). These experiences along with a passion for land protection and stewardship led to greater involvement with the Trust.

Bioblitz | May 25 | Big Grove Preserve Bioblitz | June 15 | Corriell Nature Preserve Bioblitz | August 3 | Turkey Creek Nature Preserve

As someone who has spent nearly my entire life living in Iowa, I believe that protecting and restoring Iowa’s prairie, wetland, savanna and woodland landscapes along with their native biodiversity are critical to our community’s health and wellbeing. I support Bur Oak Land Trust because land protection alone is not enough. Effective, sustainable land protection requires thoughtful ongoing stewardship and community engagement including land access, outreach and education to ensure protection into the future. During the past few years, we have seen the organization grow by leaps and bounds. This growth has resulted in more land protected as well as increased stewardship capabilities and enhanced education and outreach through our professional staff and AmeriCorps team members. In the coming year, we plan to simultaneously build on that growth and return to our roots as we reinvigorate our volunteer program. The Trust was from its inception a volunteer organization, and we believe that volunteers are essential to both continued growth and to the long-term sustainability of the organization.

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Golden Hour “capped” By Ashlee Hopkins, Development Director Local business owners Dr. Suzanne Stock, Orthodontist, Gay & Ciha Funeral and Cremation Services, and Wade Nash of Edward Jones sponsored the event covering costs so that ticket sales went directly to serve the mission of Bur Oak. The five-course dinner featured delicious mushrooms from local mushroom growers, Rot’s Bounty, and the fine wine was donated by Okoboji Wines. The dinner sold out quickly and raised more than $13,000. Thank you to all who participated! In the spirit of our giving community, Bur Oak Land Trust was hosted by the Webster for the 2023 event on October 19. The connection between the Webster and Bur Oak Land Trust is special because Sam Gelman, owner and head chef of the Webster, named the

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restaurant after his grandfather, who was instrumental in donating the first preserve to Bur Oak 42 years ago. This preserve is called Turkey Creek Nature Preserve. Webster and Gloria Gelman, John Greenleaf and Barbara Greenleaf Buckley, Gerald and Sarah Howe, and Mauricio and Emilia Lasansky purchased the land so that it wouldn’t be developed. Permanently protecting the 107-acre property wasn’t the original plan, but once the families started spending time in the prairie, woods, and creek, they fell in love, and it was donated to the Trust. The event menu consisting of mushrooms is connected to Bur Oak Land Trust preserves, which are bountiful with a variety of mushrooms from morels to chicken of the woods. Through land protection and extensive

land management, Bur Oak provides space for mushrooms to thrive in eastern Iowa. Mushrooms play a vital role in our ecosystem. They create soil biodiversity which makes soil healthier while sequestering carbon, and as they decompose they become food for other plants and animals. This fundraiser supports Bur Oak’s mission of advancing biodiversity in eastern Iowa by protecting resilient landscapes and connecting people to nature. A Bur Oak supporter said, “When you provide opportunities for people to work together on the land, that builds team spirit and teaches people what they can do. That’s where organizations like Bur Oak Land Trust come in and do a great job.”

the winter moths

Isabella tiger moth Pyrrharctia isabella

Words and photos by Darren McNabb

Polyphemus moth Antheraea polyphemus

Luna moth Actias luna

The end of autumn will be here soon. Do you ever wonder how insects survive freezing Iowa winters? The answer lies in the phenomenon of overwintering. Insects have evolved a variety of ways to beat the cold. For example, many moths in Iowa spend the winter in a resting state as larvae (caterpillars) or as pupae hidden away in a warm crevice somewhere under tree bark or under leaf litter. When temperatures warm up, they pupate and the adults emerge. This is why some of Iowa’s largest and showiest moths, like the luna and polyphemus, are typically seen flying in the spring. Another remarkable example of winter adaptation can be found in the woolly bear caterpillar, which becomes the isabella tiger moth. When temperatures drop, these caterpillars are capable of producing their own natural antifreeze called glycerol that lowers the freezing point of their blood. This allows them to withstand being frozen solid!

About the author: Darren McNabb is a lifelong Iowa resident and amateur entomologist. He runs his own insect photography website, “Darren’s Bugs” (darrensbugs.com), where he shares work that has been featured by “American Entomologist” and the Entomological Society of America. When he is not chasing bugs, Darren works at Pearson Inc. designing science assessments, and plays percussion for several local theater groups. He lives in Coralville with his wife Olivia, daughter, and five cats.

Celebrating 45 years of Conservation in Eastern Iowa A current Bur Oak board member shares their memories of the Trust and hopes for the future.

Kate Reilly What are you most proud of from your time as a supporter of Bur Oak Land Trust or serving on the board? I am really proud of the heavy lifting that we are doing with governance right now. Rekindling the governance committee so the policy work can be updated and revised to reflect the changing organization. Policy work is something the general public doesn’t really see but is really important to how an organization operates.

What is your favorite memory from your time with the Trust? Probably during the AmeriCorps experience; there were a lot of shenanigans during that time. The burns were often really fun. There is a lot of camaraderie during burns among the team members that was fostered by getting pizza and hanging out after. You have to be able to communicate well during a burn, and you have to be able to trust each other. If you can’t, there is a lot of potential for things to go wrong. You need to be able to rely on the person behind you to put out the fire. Executive Director Jason Taylor was really good at cultivating the team and helping everyone feel welcome.

Why do you support the Trust and why should others? I had a very positive experience with AmeriCorps and was especially grateful for the opportunities the Trust gave me through that experience. I wanted to give back and stay connected after AmeriCorps, so the board seemed like a good next step. I found my community through the staff and AmeriCorps members. There is a strong network of people that I felt connected with and made lifelong friendships. I am so proud of the work the Trust is doing. We have a unique strategy for prioritizing land management and not just protection.

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A Prairie Devotional By Meredith Roemerman, Communications Director


higher calling is at the heart of Jim Kessler’s conservation story. “Kathy and I are people that take our Christian faith pretty seriously and see this as a part of taking care of God’s creation,” he explained. It’s no wonder then that the 30-acre plot he and his wife Kathy donated in 2018 to Bur Oak Land Trust has become a sanctuary for wildlife and people. The first time Jim visited a prairie was after grad school. He grew up on a dairy farm in Oskaloosa where he says he spent a huge amount of time outdoors. He earned a degree in natural sciences teaching, and a master’s degree in biology from the University of Northern Iowa, then took a few ecology classes led by professor Ben Clausen, one of the early environmental educators in Iowa and leader of the award-winning Iowa Teachers Conservation Camp, where he got to learn about and explore prairies. The pivotal moment though, Jim said, was around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970. “I had never been a protester, so I wasn’t out there,” he said with a chuckle, “That’s not the way I operate.” He was in his college bookstore when he pulled a book off the shelf and bought it. “It was called, ‘A Moment in the Sun,’” he said, “which is a Sierra Club book, and it explained the environmental crisis, which was unbelievable.” He described learning of ecological horrors like the Cuyahoga River burning in Ohio that left a resounding impact. “I mean, I finally got it,” he said, “We have a problem here. We’re abusing the Earth.” It wasn’t until he saw his first prairie in bloom that he knew what he needed to do to care for the land around him. “That was the most beautiful spot I’d ever seen,” he said, but after that moment sadly, the prairie didn’t last long. The land was in an estate, Jim said, and was plowed over and farmed a couple years later. Jim was devastated.

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The Kessler home sits among the prairie, providing Jim and Kathy gorgeous views of the preserve year-round.

“I really grieved about that because I fell in love with it, and so did my wife,” he said, “We decided that if we had the chance to buy a property near Grinnell and near our church that we would do that and do natural restoration on it.” Kathy, an avid birder, was part of the local Audubon Society. She and Jim went to a meeting where Kathy mentioned that they were casually looking for some land to buy near Grinnell. It turns out someone from the group, a developer, had timber and 20 acres of land they wanted to sell, but the land was under an option agreement. Jim told the developer if the option were dropped, to let him know. “And I didn’t think about it,” he said, “Kathy prayed about it to help them to drop their option. Two weeks later they did.” Jim is a lifelong learner and educator. He taught science at Newton High School for 34 years. Back in the 70s when no one was teaching ecology to high school students, Jim said he had to create his own lesson plans, and he also managed the prairie that was planted behind the school. Creating his own backyard prairie garden inspired him to work on a larger scale. In 1998, the Kessler’s were able to buy the land they wanted just west of Grinnell to make their restoration dreams come true. They wasted no time getting started on projects. Jim consulted with experts like Daryl Smith, founder of the Tallgrass Prairie Center at UNI, about restoration as he worked on bringing the land back to life. He brought in native plants from around the county, learned how to get rid of the invasives and even grew some plants in the couple’s greenhouse. Through a lot of learning and some trial and error, Jim has reconstructed the prairie and wetland of the preserve and continues to restore the woodland. For him, it wasn’t enough to have concern for nature and do the work to care for it, he also wanted to share his knowledge with others so that they may be compelled to care, too.

Jim Kessler stands in the nave-like oak savanna at Kessler Prairie, the Bur Oak preserve in Poweshiek County that he donated in 2018.

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He spoke at his church about the work he had been doing at the preserve and what he had learned over the decades-long process. That presentation led to many more around the country, and Jim has now become quite the public speaker, though he would say otherwise. “I’m a teacher,” he said, “I’m not a public speaker. I’m not the splashy guy. That’s not me.” Nonetheless, Jim has passed down his passion for nature to many including his son Paul, who also teaches biology in Grinnell and has done his fair share of work on the preserve. Kessler Prairie also means a lot to Jim’s grandchildren, who come from Des Moines to stay overnight and to get their “pysches back together,” he said, chuckling. Jim has equally inspired Bur Oak staff and members of the AmeriCorps crew through the work he does. “They comment about how they love to come out here and work,” he said, “I think part of it is they get to see a real person that’s doing some of this. I always sincerely express appreciation because I knew when I started working on the woods, I said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to live long enough to see this finished.’” But with Bur Oak’s help, changes to the woodland started happening quickly. Soon, the entire area will be ready to be burned, which has not happened since Jim has owned the

land. He keeps finding new things at the preserve to learn about and work to preserve like bumblebees that may be on the endangered species list in the near future and the rare bobolink, a prairie bird that is in decline due to habitat loss. Those creatures, and hundreds of other plant, insect, animal and bird species find a home at Kessler Prairie. When asked how the nature all around him makes him feel, he said, “pretty wonderful.” “I read about how all of this affects people’s mental and physical and spiritual health,” he said, “I get to experience that every day of my life because we live in the middle. I am incredibly thankful and incredibly blessed to be a little part of [the preserve] and to help it along.” Jim has spent the last 25 years seeding, mowing, cutting, treating, and caring for his slice of heaven. Donating the land to Bur Oak was the Kesslers’ way of protecting all the work done to restore it, to ensure that the management would continue forever, and to leave a respite for the many living things that have come to rely on it. “Climate change is a huge problem, one I’ve watched over my lifetime, and pollinators are just getting hammered,” Jim said, “They need places where they can survive, and I don’t know if 30 acres is going to accomplish that, but it’s what I can do intensively.”

Jim Kessler points to his faith and physical health as reasons he keeps up with management at Kessler Prairie.

Tour Kessler Prairie with Jim Kessler Now you can visit Kessler Prairie and see the incredible preserve for yourself. Sign up for a spot on the tour set for July 13, 2024. Jim will be your guide around the oak savanna, wetland and of course prairie. The tour is free to attend, but registration is required to reserve a spot. For more information, visit buroaklandtrust.org/events or scan the QR code.

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Bur Oak AmeriCorps turns 5 This September, the Bur Oak Land Trust AmeriCorps program entered its fifth year, marking its first milestone anniversary. Staff welcomed seven new members and two returning members to the crew, one of whom is serving at Johnson County Conservation, the program’s host site. The crew quickly got started with a variety of training, including using chainsaws, obtaining pesticide applicator’s licensure and preparing for controlled burn season. The start of this program year is especially appreciated because recently there was a threat to AmeriCorps programs across the state. The Iowa Boards and Commissions Review committee, appointed by the governor as part of an enormous restructuring initiative, over the summer made its initial recommendations to either eliminate, merge or continue as-is hundreds of commissions and boards. The Iowa Commission on Volunteer Service, the commission necessary and responsible for distributing AmeriCorps funds across the state, was on the chopping block. Due to an outpouring of support and feedback, the committee reversed this recommendation at the end of September. AmeriCorps programs have a huge impact in Iowa and to eliminate national service would mean a loss of $14 million in federal support, primarily to nonprofits. Since 2019, Bur Oak AmeriCorps members have served more than 55,000 hours in the field. Members serve year-round to improve Iowa’s lands and ecosystems, provide environmental education to encourage continued care for nature, and strengthen community connections to the outdoors. These dedicated individuals provide invaluable services to Bur Oak, Johnson County and throughout eastern Iowa.

growing through conservation

By Sarah Lawinger, Land Steward

Catching up with Bur Oak AmeriCorps alums as they reflect on their service and share what they’re doing now.

Lidija (stojanovic) Howard

Lidija Howard was drawn to apply for Bur Oak Land Trust’s AmeriCorps program in 2019 as an environmental educator, and became the first to fill the position in the program’s inaugural year. Having grown up in a small farm town, she fell in love with exploring the natural environment just outside her backyard and, from this, developed a passion for sharing that experience with others. “The [Environmental Educator] position was exactly what I was looking for,” she said, reflecting on her time in the program. The position offered her the opportunity to build an educational program from the ground up, since a position of this nature had never been formalized at the organization before. While it was challenging to work solo at times, Lidija appreciated the high level of autonomy she had when creating educational content, hosting public events, and

representing Bur Oak during many presentation and speaking opportunities. During her time in the program, she was integral to the creation of Crayfish Crawl, Bur Oak’s annual family event which encourages children to learn hands-on in nature and explore the waters of Turkey Creek Nature Preserve. Some of her other fondest memories included creation of the property guides on the Bur Oak website, collaborating and deepening relationships with local groups like Taproot Nature Experience, and participating in stewardship activities like prescribed fire and the Chainsaw Academy courses. Today, Lidija continues her passion for youth education in her position at the Scott Family Amazeum, a children’s museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, which hosts over 250,000 visitors annually. The Amazeum offers many programs for children of all ages, with an emphasis on STEM education and hands-on learning. She explained that her experiences in Bur Oak’s AmeriCorps program are still serving her well in her current position as their IT Systems Specialist. “[Bur Oak] was where I really gained confidence in my communication and leadership skills,” she shared. In her current role, she still works in a department of one, conducting team trainings, leading presentations, and participating in long-term planning for her organization. She fostered a love for nonprofit work while at Bur Oak Land Trust, and has enjoyed the opportunity to advance the mission of another nonprofit like the Amazeum over the last two years.

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Book Review

By Mitchell Griffin, former Bur Oak AmeriCorps member

Tending Iowa’s Land: Pathways to a Sustainable Future, edited by Cornelia Mutel

Tending Iowa’s Land was named 2023’s best nature book by the Midwest Independent Publishers Association.

Tending Iowa’s Land, a new series of essays composed by respected Iowa scientists and landowners and edited by Cornelia Mutel, is a beautiful yet painful collection of stories. Rich in both scientific scope and personal accounts, these essays detail how Iowa was transformed from a lush landscape covered in prairies and wetlands to one where human development has produced an emaciated state whose biodiversity and ecosystem resilience were crushed in the process. Iowa’s former prairies once boasted one of the most brilliant and diverse ecosystems on the planet. Now, Iowans live within something akin to a 30 million-acre strip mine, a place where the once rich resources of the land are ripped away year after year by poor farming practices at the expense of everyone. Mutel breaks her book into four respective sections: one for soil, water, air, and life. Each section contains essays by scientists and Iowa landowners (often farmers) that bring unique and, importantly, personal perspectives. In every essay, one can feel the passion of an Iowan who desperately wants to help foster a more sustainable future. These Iowans often reflect on how they have awe for the natural beauty left in the region, but a sense of despair at the great losses endured over the last century and a half, a feeling that pushes them to do all they can to foster a healthier future for the land.

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Despite each of the essays being written by different authors, the collection is able to coherently emphasize the overlapping nature of the many desperate issues the state faces. If not understood beforehand, one would be hard-pressed to read these essays and not come away seeing clearly the interconnected issues of soil erosion, water quality, monoculture agriculture (including its heavy inputs of pesticides and fertilizers), and collapsed biodiversity. Rather than simply lament the dire situation of Iowa’s landscape, the book embraces the challenge of outlining how Iowans can ameliorate the current damages. A cautious optimism pervades the essays, one that acknowledges the difficulty of our current problems while also outlining potential paths forward. Whether this comes from a biologist on the team that embraced the massive, unprecedented restoration effort across nearly 9,000 acres on the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, from farmers

who fight against convention to create ecologically-sound farming and grazing operations, or the many groups that work to preserve Iowa’s few precious remnant prairies, the message that a path forward certainly exists is strong. Public policy is one element that feels at times overlooked (though not totally ignored) in Tending Iowa’s Land. On one level, this comes across as sensible. The book aims to tell stories of those Iowans who have taken it upon themselves to make changes in their own stewardship practices or embark on initiatives that harness collective power to improve various elements of Iowa’s natural resources, not to ignite a political crusade. And in a country where the policies enacted have very little correlation to popular will, essays like the ones featured in the book are even more inspirational. Iowans can do everything within their power to make positive changes without dipping their toes into the minutia of policy and still make great strides, but existing policies (and the corporate interest groups themselves which advocate for them) are still a major barrier to progress. The economic policies at both the state and federal levels create incentives for the current ecologically-disastrous system to keep on producing in the same manner. How can we expect Iowa farmers to change their ways on a large scale if heavy government subsidies continue

to help make corn and soybeans the most profitable crops to plant in the region? How can we expect change when property taxes for farmers are strongly linked to their soil’s capacity to produce high corn and soy yields, making it even more difficult to plant anything else and break even in the process? All of this is not to discredit Mutel’s collection in any way. Tending Iowa’s Land is able to tackle issues like pollution abatement and soil conservation in a highly compelling fashion, one that would be difficult to remotely imitate through a purely economic or political lens. Moreover, the lack of focus on policy is its own message. The issues we face are far too serious to wait for our politicians to craft their own solutions. Iowans must take action to restore Iowa’s ecosystems whether or not there is support from

Des Moines or D.C. If you were to drink water from any of Iowa’s streams, a hospital stay might be in your near future. If you live too close to a confined animal feeding operation (the standing-room-only abominations that house thousands of animals at once), you’re liable to develop chronic respiratory issues. If you want to see the rich soil that the prairies cultivated over millenia, most of it has been washed away in the last century. The awesome abundance of the prairie died long ago in the field, and not long after died once again in the memory of native Iowans and early settlers as the march of time carried on. The past certainly can’t be changed, but the future’s trajectory can. If our current unsustainable path is continued, the likely consequences are often too unsettling to consider. A

focused, intentional, and sustainable path to the future like the one outlined in Tending Iowa’s Land is needed if any of us hope to continue calling Iowa home.

about the author: Raised among the fields of southwest Iowa, Mitchell Griffin hails from tiny Treynor. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa. After completing his degree at UI, he helped research the effects of bur oak blight at Iowa’s Lakeside Laboratory. He formerly served as an AmeriCorps member at Bur Oak Land Trust and accepted a position with Sustainable Landscape Solutions upon completing his service term.

Thank you to our 2023 Sponsors

Event Sponsors

Program Sponsors

A special thanks to our event sponsors who make our community programming possible. Through your support, we are able to engage the community in conservation projects that strengthen Iowa’s ecosystems while connecting people to nature.

A big hand and thank you to our program sponsors for helping to make 15,000 hours of field work possible. With your help, our properties, wildlife and guests benefit from active land management and access.

To learn more about becoming a sponsor, visit buroaklandtrust.org/sponsorships

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Doing more for the outdoors.

PO Box 2523 Iowa City, IA 52244-2523


Swallowtail Sustaining Member Become a sustaining member and support pollinators! Every donation to support Bur Oak Land Trust’s mission makes a huge impact on habitat for zebra swallowtails, monarchs, and many other butterflies and pollinators. To protect pollinators every day of the year, consider making a recurring donation of $30 a month. That’s only a dollar a day to protect Iowa’s vulnerable pollinators! As a recurring donor, you will get special perks like our bi-annual magazine, invitations to special field trips, and more. Sign up today by scanning the QR Code: Or visit buroaklandtrust.org

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