Expanding Role For Mills County Conservation

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By Joe Foreman, Editor

The roles and responsibilities of the Mills County Conservation Board and its staff continue to grow.

    In fact, since Jerad Getter became the Mills County Conservation Director and many of the current board members were appointed five years ago, the area of land being maintained by the conservation board has more than tripled.
    “When we all kind of started here, we were taking care of 511 acres and now we’re taking care of about 1,737,” Getter said.
    The majority of Mills County Conservation’s added responsibilities in recent years comes from the acquisition of the 25-mile stretch (300 acres) of the Wabash Trace Nature Trail that runs through the county and an agreement with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to maintain the 906-acre Glenwood Archaeological State Preserve. The 20-acre Fisher Wildlife Area between Hastings and Malvern is another relatively new acquisition for the board.
    Conservation board members say one of their primary roles is to conserve local natural resources and provide those resources to Mills County residents for recreation and education. The board is making a concerted effort to pursue and acquire land for preservation and recreational purposes.
    “One of the other things this board is able to do as a county board is we offer public access for people that have not had the opportunity to get out into the parks,” said board member Wayne Phipps. “We provide public access to those people who like to bird watch, like to see the native plants and those types of things.”
    The conservation board has a 25-year agreement with the DNR to manage the state archeological preserve on the south edge of Glenwood. Archaeological teams from the state of Iowa have made substantial finds from the Glenwood Culture (1050 – 1300 AD) during surveys at the preserve this summer.
    “It’s a state archeological preserve, so the main goal of that preserve is to try to preserve the archeological integrity of it,” Getter said. “Our main goal is to bring the facilities down there up to snuff and make it more user-friendly.
    “They’re pretty excited about some of the things they’ve found down there, so the next five years could be very interesting in that area.”
    Getter said a 50-foot buffer zone would be established around areas of the preserve found to be of major archeological significance. 
    Board members were quick to point out that no county tax dollars are used to maintain the preserve. Cropland on the preserve, approximately 300 acres, is being leased out for farming purposes to cover the maintenance costs.
    Mills County Conser-vation’s budget this year is approximately $275,000. Board members and staff are continuously seeking grants and outside sources of revenue. Grant dollars funded major improvements and resurfacing of the Wabash Trace in Mills County. The popular bicycle trail is one of the county’s major attractions for tourism.
    “The trace is a great example of one of our attractions that brings people in from quite a distance,” said board member Lana White. “There is an economic impact. Mineola definitely has a lot of economic impact with their taco night. Malvern has had tremendous success with the restaurant business from the trace and so has Silver City.”
    Other properties owned and managed by the conservation board are West Oak Forest, Pony Creek Park, Mile Hill Lake, Ray Thomas Wildlife Preserve, Lake George Park and the Indian Creek Greenbelt Area.
    Most Mills County residents who have contact with Mills County Conservation do so by visiting one of the recreational areas or by participating in one of the numerous environmental education programs Getter and his staff offer.
    “As of right now, we make about 5,000 contacts a year through our environmental education programs,” Getter said.  “We try to have at least one a month – owl hikes, ice fishing, canoe floats.”
    Naturalist James Gates said the most popular education programs involve animals.
    “It seems like whenever we have live animals, it draws people in,” Gates said.  “The biggest draw so far is when we get Denise Lewis from Raptor Recovery Nebraska and she brings over some owls.”
    One of the conservation board’s new initiatives is to secure funding for the construction of a new educational building and interpretive center at Pony Creek Park. The facility would also house offices for Getter, the county naturalist and one other full-time staff member.
    In recent years, Mills County Conservation staff has provided their expertise for the West Elementary School outdoor education camp and other school-related environmental activities throughout the county. Brad Rasmussen, a conservation board member and science teacher in the Glenwood Community School District, said the educational programs are one of Mills County Conservation’s vital offerings.
    “From my perspective, being in education, getting the students out to know about their environment is important,” Rasmussen said. “You can study the Galapagos Islands and the rain forest in South America, and those places are very important. But, if you can treat your backyard in a way that’s going to preserve it, you can go anywhere and do the same thing. This area right now is the largest migratory bird route anywhere. More birds fly up and down this area than anyplace else. We have unique plants and animals that you can’t find anywhere else and I think the students need to know that.”
    Mills County Conser-vation board members and staff say they’ll continue to look for ways to improve outdoor educational and recreational opportunities for the citizens of Mills County. Getter encourages residents to visit the Mills County Conservation website or to contact his office at 527-9685 with questions, comments or suggestions.