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Bur Oak Land Trust supports forest restoration project on tribal land

A 30-acre pine stand on the Meskwaki Nation Settlement near Tama was significantly damaged following last year’s derecho, an inland hurricane where winds reached up to 140 mph. Trees averaging 70 feet tall lay snapped among piles of branches and limbs in the woodland, and that’s where the Bur Oak Land Trust crew got to work.

The stand is part of the tribe’s nearly 300-acre bison refuge, home to a herd of 55 animals. Each year, 12-15 new calves are born and the tribe harvests around nine animals for meat. The herd size is at its maximum with three paddocks for the bison to roam around and two more planned. Forested area is needed to shelter the bison, but with so many trees down, the animals couldn’t make their way through the trees.

“It’s a nice little oasis out of the elements for them … so letting them back into the forests to get cover is important for us,” said Megan Volkens, Fish and Wildlife Branch Coordinator at Meskwaki Department of Natural Resources.

The department has a small crew available to do field work, so to make a dent in the project, Bur Oak stepped in Thursday with two staff and five AmeriCorps members to take down some hazard trees, cut up fallen trees and clear material into brush piles. The crew was also joined by Meskwaki Natural Resources Conservation Aide Stacy Youngbear.

“I am always proud of how efficiently our crew works together,” said Hannah Davey, AmeriCorps Land Management Crew Leader at Bur Oak. “As a team, we can quickly cut up and clear out impressive amounts of material. The Meskwaki Natural Resource crew can only do so much, so the additional nine people from Bur Oak made a considerable impact in just one day.”

Volkens echoed the same sentiment and said with the skills and large number of chainsaws Bur Oak has Meskwaki can “get a lot of work done with this kind of group.”

“We’re extremely grateful for this opportunity,” she said. “Land trust groups are awesome.”

The future of the pine plantation had been discussed for years. Stands of pines like the one at Meskwaki were planted across the Midwest around the time of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps. The plantings were part of an effort to restore land that was overworked or eroded from agriculture or grazing.

Trees aren’t only necessary to the landscape and bison habitat; they are also important to Meskwaki Nation, Sac and Fox tribe of the Mississippi. After the derecho, the U.S. Forest Service, in coordination with Iowa Department of Natural Resources, surveyed the forest. Volkens said the assessment revealed that half of the forest had been damaged by the storm, which was on the highest end of total forest destruction.

“That’s significant for the tribe,” she said, “because historically they are a forest or timber tribe. They came from the northeast, so forest is very important to the tribe.”

But the pine trees planted in the area aren’t native to Iowa, which created a dilemma for the Meskwaki Natural Resources Department. As a kind of silver lining to all of the destruction, Volkens said, the derecho helped clear the way for future plans.

“We’ll get in there, pile everything, clean it up and then plant bare root oak trees, hickory trees and any other desirable trees the tribe wants,” she said. “Kind of taking this random pine plantation that we have and bringing it back to a native forest.”

The restoration project is just beginning and Bur Oak plans to continue to offer assistance on the next steps. Volkens also suggested the project has opened the door for work on other forests on the Settlement.

“This is our second time volunteering at Meskwaki, but it certainly won’t be our last,” said Bur Oak Executive Director Jason Taylor. “We are excited to learn more about how they manage their land and look forward to working with their crew in the future.”

Bison feed and rest on the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama. All photos by Meredith Roemerman.
Bur Oak Land Trust AmeriCorps Land Management Crew Leader Sarah Lawinger cuts through damaged timber as part of a forest restoration project on the Meskwaki Settlement.
Meskwaki Department of Natural Resources Coordinator Megan Volkens talks with Bur Oak AmeriCorps Stewardship Technician Noah Hood about the forest restoration project.
Jack Sytsma, AmeriCorps stewardship technician, hauls brush into piles on the Meskwaki Settlement.
Part of the forest restoration project will allow bison to once again take shelter among the trees.
The Bur Oak Land Trust crew with Meskwaki Conservation Aide Stacy Youngbear after a day of cutting and clearing.

Bur Oak AmeriCorps turn Houses Into Homes with local nonprofit

What makes a house a home? Bur Oak Land Trust AmeriCorps members found out this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“How many of you are experienced furniture movers?” Lucy Barker, cofounder of local nonprofit Houses Into Homes, asked the group Monday as they got ready to start their morning of service.

Barker and Salina McCarty started the Coralville-based nonprofit in 2018 after volunteering at their children’s elementary school and seeing the need for beds. McCarty said they were hearing from children about how their backs hurt and they couldn’t sleep. They realized that although the families had a house, they didn’t necessarily have anything to put in it.

Since then, Houses Into Homes has had no shortage of referrals for individuals and families transitioning to more permanent housing in need of beds, furniture and other household items.

“We haven’t seen a big increase in referrals because of Covid, although we did serve many more families in 2020 than we did in 2019,” McCarty wrote in an email. “We served 145 households in 2019, and 204 in 2020.”

She went on to write that she and Barker did expect there to be more referrals due to the pandemic and subsequent economical challenges, but thought because of the rental assistance and eviction moratoriums put in place by state and local governments, more people may have been able to stay in housing.

The AmeriCorps volunteer group was able to pull, load, deliver and unload items for five households in a few short hours where Barker and McCarty acknowledged it would’ve taken them all week. McCarty described a situation where she and another volunteer did a delivery which required them to do 30 trips up and down the stairs.

“The more arms we have, the better,” she said and thanked the group for their ability to volunteer during the week when they could use the most assistance.

The project also aligned with Bur Oak’s broader goal of restoring the local environment through waste reduction. By distributing unwanted or unused furniture to those who need it, Houses Into Homes is keeping usable furniture out of the landfill. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 9.6 million tons of furniture was landfilled in 2018.

The third Monday in January commemorating the birthday of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. is the only federal holiday that promotes national service. It is also a day where AmeriCorps members across the country participate in projects that meet critical needs in the community. The members from the Bur Oak Land Trust AmeriCorps program and its host site partner Tamarack Discovery School, volunteered as a way to give back.

“Living in a home without basic necessities like a bed would affect many aspects of an individual’s life,” Jack Sytsma, Bur Oak AmeriCorps member, wrote in a reflection assignment. “Helping to provide those individuals with these resources eliminates this added stress to others they may already be facing.”

On the last delivery, a recipient, stunned at the quantity of donated furniture, asked, “is that it?”

His gratitude reflected how important this service is to the community.

“Thank you guys, thanks a lot,” he said. “We sure need it.”

AmeriCorps member Sarah Lawinger and Houses Into Homes cofounder Salina McCarty make a delivery on MLK Jr. Day. All photos by Meredith Roemerman.
Through the help of donors, Houses Into Homes was able to buy a truck, making pick-up and delivery of donations much easier.
AmeriCorps members unload the Houses Into Homes truck during one of the deliveries during their service day.
Bur Oak AmeriCorps Program members volunteered for four hours on MLK Jr. Day and made five deliveries to households in the area.

AmeriCorps in the field

Our AmeriCorps team had another active month in December.

Before snow covered the state, our stewardship crew completed a prescribed burn at Belgum Grove, just south of Iowa City. It was a unique opportunity for the students at our host site, Tamarack Discovery School, to watch the burn from a safe distance and learn about the prairie ecosystem from our education team.

The stewardship crew also spent a lot of time clearing invasive species at Big Grove and Turkey Creek preserves and O’Mara-Newport Woods. Jack, one of our technicians, said he was enjoying the experience of learning to identify each species without the help from leaves and flowers, and how to remove each species using chemicals or hand tools.

“My favorite moment would have to be when comparing the unmanaged portion of O’Mara Newport to the portion of the land where we had performed the invasive removal,” he wrote. “We could see the progress being made, as the understory was significantly shorter and sparser in the area where we had just treated. We were able to see the process of invasive species removal and were able to visually evaluate the result as a team … Through this experience, I learned how important it becomes to fight invasive encroachment as early as possible in order to lessen the accumulation of non-native seeds in the seed bank.”

Once the weather hit, we had members working on projects indoors. Hannah, one of our crew leaders, is training to get her commercial drone operator’s license. Drones are becoming increasingly usual tools in land management because they can give a view of a large amount of land in a short amount of time.

Mariel, another technician, also spend some time indoors working on organizing property files and digital land management plans to make future use easier.

“I’ve looked through many documents related to specific properties and general information and because of this, have gained a better understanding of the work that Bur Oak Land Trust does and the time and effort that goes into conducting that work,” she wrote. She went on to write, “Gaining a better understanding of the overall work of Bur Oak Land Trust has helped me better understand the work of the organization as a whole, as well as how different people contribute to that work overall.”

Finally, Noah, also a technician and new to the Midwest this service year, wrote a story about his recent experience in the Iowa snow:

As a child, snow was only something I could read about in books but rarely experience. The Mississippi climate seldom permitted it, after all.

However, the few times snow finally did come to my hometown, it was an exciting event. Schools closed, large icicles formed, and we had large snowball fights with the neighbors. The snow was usually only present for a day or two before conceding to the above-freezing temperatures expected for the region.

Even though I’m an adult now, my first experience with Iowa snowfall was still exciting. I’d never realized just how quiet a snow-filled landscape could be.

However, this wanderlust lasted for about a day. I quickly grew tired of the icy roads and the knee-deep trudging required to traverse the properties. Snow was a hindrance to my daily routine but not necessarily impactful.

A week into December, the temperature dropped below 20 [degrees], so all fieldwork was postponed for the day. I, for one, wasn’t making too much progress trying to add layers to Google Earth, so I decided to take a trip to Pappy Dickens instead. There, I would scout out different areas of the property for the plant survey; get an idea of where I might establish different transects.

A few minutes into the trek, I noticed another visitor shoveling herself along on skis. I was surprised. The snow seemed to be thick, but not dense enough to make skiing easy. Right as this though flashed through my mind, I felt the ground shift from under me. My feet gave away and I fell straight to my bottom, sliding down the incline and 15 feet into the fluffier snow below. Luckily, there were no witnesses to observe my clumsiness, but I still laughed at myself anyway.

As I tried to get back up, my feet slid and I found myself back on the ice. I looked back up the slope and noticed that the entire side of the small hill was coated in a dense glaze of ice. Not wanting to get too wet trudging through the fluffier snow, I decided to forgo walking around the icy patch up the hill and, instead, take a much less pragmatic route. I took my knife and fork out my lunch bag and used them as icepicks. They worked remarkably well, helping my scale the icy slope in no time.

Whatever my reservations about snow may be, I’ll have to get used to it for now.

Students and staff from Tamarack Discovery School watching a prescribed burn at Belgum Grove.
Stewardship crew conducting the burn at Belgum Grove.
The trail at Pappy Dickens Preserve covered with snow.

In Their Own Words: Julie Qidwai

Each Bur Oak Land Trust donor has a story about why they give. Here is one of those stories.

Julie Qidwai said she donates to Bur Oak Land Trust “to support having spaces like Muddy Creek Preserve available for people to experience at the drop of a hat. Not somewhere you have to pack a lunch and have special shoes and drive to — something that’s walkable and accessible to people in their daily lives.”

Like many Iowans, Julie has fond memories of exploring the outdoors as a child. Some of her most salient memories are wading and hiking endlessly in places like Hartman Reserve and Dry Creek Run in Cedar Falls, and Camp Tahigwa, now a wildlife preserve in Dorchester.

“When I have revisited some of those places as an adult, I have been overwhelmed by a sense of connectedness and peace, and that’s notable for me because I’m a pretty unemotional person in my day-to-day life,” she said. “The experiences that I had in these places weren’t characterized by bonding with others or having any kind of specific memory- or emotion-producing ‘event.’ I guess they stuck with me because some connection occurred between me and the outdoor space/nature itself.”

Julie’s love of conservation came first from childhood experiences and influence from her family. She credits her uncle, a botanist who served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with former vice president Al Gore, as being a strong supporter of kids spending time in nature.

Today, Julie lives in Coralville and spends a lot of time walking the trails around her home. Her most recent visit to Muddy Creek Preserve inspired her latest gift.

“I was headed to check out a wooded area that I hadn’t walked yet, and then I saw the Muddy Creek Preserve/Bur Oak sign,” she said. “I was already donating to Bur Oak, but seeing that you guys have this area near my home really warmed my heart and gave me one of those moments where you feel like things are magically coming together in your life, you know?”

Julie said she’s since had a couple of great hikes to explore Muddy Creek, this “very interesting piece of land,” but it’s local children exploring the area that really gives her joy.

“I am especially happy that [Bur Oak has] that piece of land because I know for a fact that the neighborhood kids — mostly boys, but some girls — around there are building forts around Muddy Creek a little further south near Wickham Elementary, and this leads them up and down the creek in either direction,” she said. “So it’s great that there is some preserved space up there that they can access as well.”

Julie’s belief in Bur Oak Land Trust’s impact inspires her to be a donor. We couldn’t be more grateful for her generosity, vision, and dedication to protecting local, natural spaces for current and future generations. Join Julie in supporting local conservation by donating to Bur Oak Land Trust today.

Julie holding a large morel mushroom. / Photo courtesy of Julie Qidwai
Muddy Creek Preserve
Julie and her daughter out on a hike. / Photo courtesy of Julie Qidwai

Land Trust Alliance featured land trust

Bur Oak Land Trust was the Featured Land Trust in this month’s Midwest Field Notes email update from Land Trust Alliance, a national land conservation organization. LTA chose to feature Bur Oak’s “feel-good story” of the work the organization did following the devastating August derecho.

Bur Oak Land Trust supports community after natural disaster

In early August, a derecho storm hit Iowa with 100-mile per hour winds — described as equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane or a 40-mile wide tornado. The devastation was widespread and that is when the accredited Bur Oak Land Trust went to work. Executive Director Jason Taylor explains, “Service to the community is at the core of our mission and when disaster strikes, we’re there to lend a hand.”

Bur Oak staff and AmeriCorps crew used their skill, equipment, determination and hundreds of hours of time to help Iowans across the state. The crew deployed for three weeks to Cedar Rapids – an area hit particularly hard by the storm — as part of an AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team to clear hazard trees and other debris from neighborhoods. Bur Oak also pitched in by raising funds for Meskwaki Nation — the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa and cutting and clearing trees on the Settlement.

“We’re proud to be a part of a resilient community and appreciate those who support us and the work we do,” Taylor said.

Noah Hood, Bur Oak Land Trust AmeriCorps stewardship technician, cuts a hazard tree in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Photo by Meredith Roemerman

Getting kids outdoors

Our AmeriCorps Natural Resources Education Leader Lidija Stojanovic helped out with Taproot Nature Experience programs recently. Getting kids outside is significant for several reasons. Dr. Claire McCarthy listed six ways children benefit from spending time in nature for the Harvard Health blog.

In addition to exercise, sunshine and taking risks, children are likely to develop an appreciation for nature the more time they spend outdoors.

“If a child grows up never walking in the woods, digging in soil, seeing animals in their habitat, climbing a mountain, playing in a stream, or staring at the endless horizon of an ocean,” McCarthy writes, “they may never really understand what there is to be lost.”

We value our partnerships with groups like Taproot, Tamarack Discovery School and Take A Kid Outdoors because they understand how important it is to get kids outdoors to explore, learn and develop an appreciation for the natural world around them.

There are many activities kids can do outside this winter including sledding, making snowfolks, building forts and identifying plants and animals. We have many activities on the Kids Corner page. Check them out!

Sundog, Mock Sun, Parhelia

Whatever name you choose, the atmospheric phenomenon where two orbs of light appear on either side of the sun is a pretty cool site to see.

A sundog is caused by light refraction from ice-filled clouds. The lights appear on each side of the sun at approximately 22 degrees, forming a halo.

Unlike rainbows, which indicate the end of rain, sundogs are a signal of wet weather. If you see one, chances are rain or snow is coming. 

Jerry Denehy, Bur Oak board member and longtime supporter, captured this sundog on Christmas Eve near his home, “a great start for Christmas,” he said.

Sundogs can be seen any time of the year, but are most visible when the sun is near the horizon.

Bur Oak receives $7,000 in grants

We’re pleased to announce that Bur Oak Land Trust recently received $7,000 in grants to purchase additional gear for the stewardship crew and to continue several land management projects.

Bur Oak was one of 20 nonprofits working in conservation and preservation selected to receive $5,000 from the MTN DEW Outdoor Grants program. This funding will allow our staff and crew to continue to provide restored habitat for plants and wildlife, natural areas for the public to enjoy, and valuable educational opportunities for the community to learn more about the local environment.

Bur Oak also received $2,000 from the Theisen’s – More for Your Community Grants program through the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque to purchase personal protective equipment including chaps, eye protection and helmets for our stewardship crew.

Following the Aug. 10 derecho, Bur Oak staff and AmeriCorps members were busy serving local communities including Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and the Meskwaki Settlement as they all recovered from the storm. Crew safety is paramount during any response and this funding will ensure our staff and AmeriCorps members have the gear that they need.

A huge thank you to both programs for supporting our mission and the resources we provide to the community.

Curious by Nature event

Are trees weeds? Carter Johnson, Bur Oak Land Trust Land Steward, will shed some light on this topic and answer your other burning questions during Curious by Nature, a live, virtual event from 6-7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 17 on Zoom.

Carter has a background in forestry and will explain how trees are managed as part of a land conservation management plan, followed by a moderated question-and-answer session.

Send your questions to info@buroaklandtrust.org and tune in Thursday to hear Carter’s responses!

A recording of the event is available on our YouTube page.

Newest issue of Heritage out now!

The winter issue of Heritage is hot off the press!

The big stories include Bur Oak Land Trust’s role in the derecho recovery, the importance of natural areas during Covid, and a project update from Muddy Creek Preserve.

This issue also has an awesome animal track guide created by our AmeriCorps education team that’s fun for kids and adults!

Subscribe to get your mailed copy.

Heritage is a seasonal publication that features conservation news, feature stories and updates from your local land trust.

Giving Tuesday results

THANK YOU! This Giving Tuesday we received $1,654 in donations made by 18 donors.

These gifts allow us to protect more land, restore more habitat and create new opportunities for you to connect with nature. We greatly appreciate your generosity and commitment to local conservation.

Giving Tuesday is a “global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world.”

Did you miss Giving Tuesday? Help us start off strong in 2021 by becoming a recurring donor. A dollar given to Bur Oak Land Trust is a dollar invested in your community.