Activism sometimes gets a bad rap. But special interest groups work day and night to turn the tide of public policy in order to save our natural resources.

In Central Iowa, there is one modern activist push we can all get behind. When the need to expand a highway nearly obliterated an irreplaceable marsh, conservationists got organized and saved the unique ecosystem for generations to experience.

Lewis Major, Polk County Conservation: So you guys are not the first, you guys will definitely not be the last, but every time we come out here it will change your life and I'm not kidding. Some of you guys will change your career path because of what you're about to experience. Some of you won't. But none of you will forget this experience today. So we don't want to waste our time by talking about whatever it is you think is more important. Believe me, this is something you will treasure for a long time. So we want to get in the marsh as quickly as possible. But before we do that I want to explain why you guys are here and what we're doing here. This is an ecological museum which means what you're about to experience took Mother Nature an Ice Age to form. This has been here for about 14,000 years.

As good a time as these students are having, they have no idea how lucky they are. Engeldinger Marsh has an unmatched biological and ecological reputation in the state of Iowa. But beyond that, this field trip almost never happened as the marsh was nearly wiped away in the name of convenience.

Loren Lown, Polk County Conservation, Retired: I think in the mid-90s when the DOT came to the Polk County Conservation Board and said, you own this now. We said, yes we do. And they said, well we're going to put a road through it. And we said, can we talk about this because we think this has great value? And they said, that's true but we've got a road already in here, which is a major point. Deciding where to site a road because of ecological context is difficult. Deciding to move a road from an area because of ecological context is really even more difficult. It's very expensive, very time consuming and they don't, people don't want to do it unless it's absolutely necessary. So I think what it came to be is that we found out it really was a unique area. I was grateful to see that people recognized its value.

Of course, the work to get the DOT to move Highway 65 was not that easy.

Having retired in early 2018, Loren Lown worked for Polk County Conservation for 27 years and the struggle to keep Engeldinger from turning into a ditch on the side of a four lane highway took up a good chunk of his tenure with the organization.

Lown: There was a lot of controversy about it. Some people thought we should plow through, just go ahead and put the road in and animals and birds will survive. Others said, no you must take it around. It was several years in discussion before it was finally decided. Polk County Conservation Board asked that we look at the site so we knew what was at stake. I think I used the expression, look at the book before we burn it. And a firm out of Ames with the principle investigator was a former state ecologist. We asked that they do it and they took their time and did it right, did plant surveys, animal surveys, small mammals, birds and found out that Engeldinger Marsh had a remarkably diverse flora and fauna. During the course of that found a small, relatively insignificant looking insect, a mulberry wing skipper, which was a state special concern or threatened species. And that sort of was the final nail in saying okay, we've got to take this road someplace else.

On top of the incredible ecological discoveries, the Conservation Board also uncovered a federal statute that when tied to the study forced the DOT's decision.

Lown: When you put a road through a park or preserve and you're using federal funds there is a section of federal Highway Code called 4F which means that if there is any practicable way to avoid that land you should do it. And that was a practicable way, not the cheapest, but a practicable way to do it. And so that became the route that went around Engeldinger Marsh.

Looking at a map of Central Iowa there is a noticeable bump in Highway 65. That bump saved Engeldinger for countless birds, animals and plant species but it also guarantees future generations of students and outdoor enthusiasts will be able to discover the bounty of the marsh.

Lewis Major: It's a living, breathing classroom. Words can't explain it, that's why we bring them out here. If words can explain it you can read it in a textbook and that's not how students or anybody, adults included, should learn about wetlands. The best way to learn about a wetland is to come to a wetland, get in it, experience it, feel it, smell it, touch it, capture the animals, experience the plants that call this home. There's no other way you can possible experience that.

The best part of learning about wetlands like Engeldinger firsthand is that the experience it offers changes with the seasons any many times week to week.

Major: It's just endless and depending on what time of year you're here depends on what type of things you're going to interact with. If you're here early you're going to catch a lot more of the smaller tadpoles. If you're here in the middle of summer you're going to start seeing the developing salamanders and you're going to start seeing some of the larger scavenger beetles and diving beetles and some of those things that take a little bit longer to develop. If you come here this fall you might catch some full grown salamanders. So every time you come here it kind of opens up a new page of discovery.

With Engeldinger's future ensured, Loren says it is important to know the Iowa Department of Transportation was not the villain in the fight to save the marsh, but a partner. Both organizations followed the law, worked hard and in the end, worked together to save an irreplaceable piece of the state, something that hasn't always been the case. 

Lown: I think we're lucky in the state of Iowa that we have what we have left. It's not necessary you shoot the last buffalo. We need these places so our children and grandchildren actually have an understanding of what native Iowa was like, rich, diverse, beautiful landscape. Those of us who have worked in conservation for years realize that often times the hardest thing to take is sometimes people just don't care. In this case a great many people cared. There was a good reason to preserve it. I'm very grateful it's still here. 

REAP
Gilchrist Foundation