MM Fall 2017

Page 8

Ecological marvel TNC efforts sustain many forms of life, our appreciation of it Story and photos by Jessica Hubbard As we slide into the seat of the Gator, the word “diversity” weaves its way into the conversation. It’s a word you’ll hear often when talking with Dale Maxson and Hannah Howard of The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Eastern Iowa Field Office. Twenty-one tracts of land, encompassing approximately 3,400 acres make up the TNC preserves in the Lower Cedar Valley. These areas provide ecosystems that are vital in supporting an abundance of diverse plant and animal life and landscapes unique to this area.

Getting there To enter Swamp White Oak Preserve: From From U.S. 61, turn west on Hershey Ave. It becomes G28. Go 11.5 miles. You’ll cross two bridges. Immediately before a third bridge, turn right on a gravel access road. To enter Maytag: From U.S. 61, turn west on Hershey Ave. It becomes G28. Go 13.5 miles, and turn left on Blue Heron Road. Follow to a “Y” in road and turn left on 245th Street. Drive for 1.2 miles. The preserve is on the left side of the road. 6 Muscatine Magazine • Fall 2017

The region has been dedicated as the nation’s first reptile and amphibian conservation area. Our first stop is the Swamp White Oak Preserve, located just off of Muscatine County Highway G28. Maneuvering through bouncy terrain, Maxson points out the electric fence that surrounds the preserve. He explains the Conservancy’s important partnership with a local farmer. The cattle benefit the area by grazing six months of the year on reed canary grass, a now-prolific, non-native plant originally introduced for feeding livestock. The Conservancy’s goal is to diminish the growth of this grass so native plants such as sedges and Virginia wildrye can make a comeback. Maxson cuts the motor on the Gator, and we head out to explore. As we walk and talk, Howard gently rolls over fallen logs and large branches. She’s looking for the creatures that dwell on these decaying pieces of wood. On the

third try, she finds one. She reaches down, carefully placing a tiny black amphibian in the palm of her hand. It’s a smallmouth salamander, not much bigger than her thumb. It seems amazing that an animal so small and delicate in appearance can survive in such a large and open space. Returning the salamander back to its home, we continue our tour of the preserve. Towering swamp white oaks, cottonwoods and bur oaks dot the landscape, providing shelter and sustenance for birds such as the red-shouldered hawk and cerulean warbler. Turtles, including Blanding’s, also call this savanna home. Maxson and Howard also mention they’ve detected eight species of bats on the Lower Cedar Valley properties so far, including the federally listed northern long-eared bat (threatened) and the Indiana bat (endangered), proving this area’s importance for these migratory mammals. Our other stop is at the Fred Maytag Family preserves (named for the landowners), a short drive, just past

Visiting TNC preserves in the Lower Cedar Valley

preserves are subject to rules that protect unique natural features.

Properties like Maytag and Swamp White Oak are open to the public and accessible year round, but many preserve areas have restricted access due to being landlocked by other private properties with no public access point. In the next few years, TNC’s local office plans to make more preserves open and accessible to the public.

What you shouldn’t do at the Lower Cedar Valley Preserves:

TNC welcomes visitors to hike, bird watch, photograph wildlife or snowshoe. However, visits to the

Biking • Camping • Fires • Horseback riding Hunting • Target practice • Use motorized vehicles If you want more information on the Lower Cedar Valley Project, preserves, events, and volunteer opportunities, please call the TNC office at (319) 726-3041. n