Parks: To Save a Natural Place

Swimming, boating, hiking and picnicking are a few of the recreational activities available at the many state parks in Iowa. Before there were state parks, people found their own picnic areas along roadsides or in the woods. Around the turn of the 20th century, people joined together to try to persuade the State Department of Conservation to buy land for parks and wildlife refuges. Creating parks would preserve the land before it was all used up for farms or industries. These groups led the way in Iowa just as President Theodore Roosevelt led the way to set aside land for national parks.

One group that helped to bring about state-owned parks was the Iowa Federation of Women (IFW). This group saw the need to preserve and conserve our natural resources for future generations. May McNider (1863-1954) of Mason City acted as chairwoman of the Conservation Department in the IFW. She tried to get the support of the women's club members. May McNider gave talks and wrote articles to persuade businesspeople and state officials of the need to purchase land for state parks. Mrs. McNider's efforts were successful. The first state park, Devil's Backbone (now Backbone State Park), was established in 1920.

Mrs. McNider took particular interest in Pilot Knob, near her home in Mason City. The area was named for a hill called Pilot Knob, which rises 300 feet above the surrounding land. The hill served as a landmark for pioneers crossing the state through the tall prairie grass.

Mrs. McNider believed Pilot Knob would be a special park. The knob is the second highest point in the state. The land formation (boulders, clay and gravel) and nearby water attracted unusual wildlife that Mrs. McNider wanted to see preserved. A variety of shrubs surrounded the spring-fed Dead Man's Lake. A water-lily unlike any other found in Iowa grew in the lake. There were water birds, the brown thrasher, robins, blue jays, whippoorwills, mourning doves, owls and hawks. An occasional red fox, badger and muskrat was also seen in the park area. After several years of hard work, Pilot Knob Park was dedicated on September 11, 1924.

In 1922 there were 14 state parks and by 1943 the number had grown to 86. In 2017 there were 173 state parks, forests and preserves throughout the state of Iowa.

Our state parks are one example of a way to conserve and preserve the natural environment. By maintaining these parks and respecting the wildlife found there, Iowans continue the tradition of Mrs. McNider.


  • Cynthia P. Huff, “To Save a Natural Place,” The Goldfinch 5, no. 3 (February 1984): 14.