New trails to be unveiled at Hitchcock Nature Center

“I’m just so excited to see people get in here and enjoy it.”
Hitchcock Nature Center, north of Council Bluffs, is expanding its trail system.
Published: May. 16, 2023 at 10:38 PM CDT
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HONEY CREEK, Iowa (WOWT) - The seeds were planted long ago, and no one has sowed more of this soon-to-be-opened slice of the Loess Hills than Chad Graeve.

“In 1997 we put together the long-range acquisition plan for how to build a preserve that could function ecologically, and every piece of the puzzle is important and these are these are really exciting pieces of that puzzle,” Pottawattamie Conservation’s natural resource specialist said. ”It’s fun to see things fall into place and it’s really a privilege to be able to share it with people. I’m just so excited to see people get in here and enjoy it.”

On June 3, National Trails Day, Hitchcock Nature Center will open 400 acres of land the public, acquired in recent years adjacent to the existing park. Conservation and restoration efforts aren’t geared towards turning back the clock, but building a natural, healthy ecosystem.

“We’re grateful to the people that took care of this land before and wanted it to be part of what we’re doing to protect and restore a small part of the Loess Hills, and we’re super excited to share this with our visitors,” Graeve said. “We actually look at the past to give us an indication of how the system worked, we’re not trying to go back in time we’re trying to move forward to a healthy condition so the past gives us a reference to understand what health was and how the system functioned we put the pieces of the puzzle back in place so that we can move forward to a good healthy state.”

Once prescribed burns ended in the winter, and spring weather allowed, Chad’s team began building and clearing trails that until now were on private land, like a section that will connect to the existing Westridge Trail.

“There’s an old bulldozed road that was put in before 1938, we can see it on the 1938 aerial photos, and it was all overgrown with trees,” he said. “And so we’ve just been clearing trees to open that back up again. We will have to do a little bit of dirt work to reshape some of it but it’s going to be a pretty nice trail.”

As will Lotus Loop, around the yet-to-be-renamed pond, and Crescent Ridge, connecting to the Mt. Crescent Ski Area, which was also part of recent land acquisitions for Pottawattamie Conservation.

The unique Loess Hills don’t just draw interest from locals.

Matthew Little, a Ph.D. student in the Geography and Sustainability Sciences department at the University of Iowa, is doing some field research and visiting with Graeve for his studies. The native of Scotland was impressed with the dedication to restoration seen here.

“You’re doing a different kind of restoration, kids will grow up not thinking corn fields are the only natural-looking space, they’ll see what natural really is,” Little said. “And that sort of ethos will go ahead with them and hopefully you’re imparting a conservation mindset.”

While some might not want to open these spaces to the public, Little praises Graeve’s design emphasis on humans’ better understanding of where they live through the land.

“Humans have been part of the landscape and the functioning of it for upwards of 20,000 years at least,” Little said. “It’s changing the idea of a colonial idea of wilderness on a massive scale, and I think it’s sensible and realistic to do things that way because you’re seeing the landscape in context, in human context as well as this ecological one, that’s how it’s gonna work. That’s how the solutions and the restorations will last is if everything is sort of considered that way.”

And for those who make it out for the grand reveal of the new trails and acreage on June 3, Graeve hopes they will find their own connection.

“I think it’s important for people to recognize that every natural system is unique and so incredibly special, no matter where you are,” Graeve said. “And so just a sense of gratitude to be able to be in that place experiencing it, and then... tuning into the place and developing a personal relationship with the place and appreciating it for what it is and and and and appreciating the opportunity to be here.”

“In the morning (of June 3) we’re going to have volunteers out here helping us finish up one last low stretch of trail and tearing out some old fence in between the two properties,” Graeve said. “And then in the afternoon we’ll have our grand opening ceremony and then we’ll lead guided hikes in the new trail system.”