A few things to be thankful for

In the spirit of the holiday season, I thought I would focus on some of the good things that have happened this year in the world of conservation, parks, and outdoor recreation. If you don’t like good things, feel free to go back to scrolling through your social media. Otherwise, keep reading.

Let’s start with a wide view. Back in March, President Trump signed legislation permanently authorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act was actually a collection of more than 100 bills that accomplish various things from designating more wilderness areas in New Mexico, to protecting National Park lands from mining, to reinstating the LWCF which had expired five months earlier.

The LWCF was first established in 1964. It uses royalties from the oil and gas industry to fund national parks and create outdoor recreation opportunities locally. Here at home, LWCF funds are made available to cities and counties through grant programs administered through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Grant dollars through this program, matched with funds from local donors and foundations, helped acquire the Leopold Recreation Area on the north end of Burlington, aided in the development of Big Hollow Recreation Area near Sperry, and helped build Big Hollow Lake a decade ago, among other things.

What’s especially heartwarming about this victory is just how bipartisan it was, especially in this age of divisiveness and ugly politics. Out of the 525 US congresspeople that cast a vote, only 70 voted against its passage (8 in the Senate and 62 in the House).

Speaking of National Parks and wilderness, such places even garnered the praise of Hollywood this year. The National Geographic documentary, Free Solo, earned an Academy Award for best documentary feature. The movie features rock climber Alex Honnold, as he attempts to climb the “world’s most famous rock” …the 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park…without a rope.

And you thought Black Friday shopping was crazy.

Closer to home, Governor Kim Reynolds appointed a new leader to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources back in June, filling a 14-month vacancy created when Chuck Gipp retired. The new department director, Kayla Lyon, is the first female appointed to lead the department, and in her mid-thirties, is probably one of the youngest.

Lyon comes from an ag background, which may prove beneficial as she leads the agency tasked with managing natural resources in a state that is the national leader in agricultural runoff. Time will tell, I suppose. But in the meantime, I’m thankful that Governor Reynolds finally gave the department a leader who will hopefully breathe some youthful vitality into the organization.

At the local level, we can all be thankful that the Mississippi River is, finally and once again, back in its banks below flood stage. After a record-setting 169 days above the 15-foot threshold in Burlington so far this calendar year, 2019 far surpasses any year on record, dating back to 1917, for number of days above flood stage. The closest competitor is 1993 at 151 days, which was quite the anomaly until this year. Aside from 1993, we had only ever exceeded 90 days above flood stage twice (94 days in 2018, and 91 days 2013) in the history of recording river stages.

So with winter bearing down on us, let’s all be thankful that our Hesco barriers won’t have to stand up to ice flows.

And finally, there’s lots to be thankful for in our local parks. I really like the new interpretive signage at Crapo Park. My kids will really enjoy the new “tot spot” playground equipment near the Dankwardt Pool. And the DeEdwin and Gladys White Park down on Angular Street got an entire overhaul this year with new basketball courts, new playground equipment, a new shelter house, and more. What makes these improvements even more special is the fact that most of the funding for them came from grants, donations, and local foundations and fundraising.

Out in the county, the trails at Starr’s Cave Park got some upgrades this year, even though they flooded quite substantially in the spring. But thanks to a few dozen volunteers that came out for a trail improvement day, the cleanup happened quick and several trail improvement projects were completed including two new bridges, erosion control on a few hundred feet of steep trail, and the installation of several benches along the 1.6-mile trail corridor between the nature center and highway.

In closing, while there certainly is much to appreciate, I’m most thankful for the people that help make our parks and outdoor spaces so great. Great parks are important to our community; But it’s great people that make our community feel like home.

And home is the best place to be for the holidays.

This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.

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