The North Raccoon Wildlife Area just might be the biggest playground in Greene County. But rather than teeter-totters and swings, this playground offers excellent deer hunting, turkey, dove and rabbit hunting, river access and sandbar camping, bird watching, hiking and more.
The area, which originates from the intersection of the North Raccoon River and Hwy. 30, has as grown from nearly 290 acres to more than 720 acres since 2012, thanks to local landowners who wanted to share their piece of paradise.
“We’ve had landowners turn down multiple offers, waiting for us to buy it because they want to make their land available for everyone to use,” said Josh Gansen, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
For more than 40 years, the area consisted of basically the McMahon Access with a narrow strip of public land on either side of the river around the Hwy. 30 Bridge.
The first land project was the result of an easement program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that focused on improving the water quality in the North Raccoon watershed.
It became a catalyst for other projects in the area.
The federally endangered Topeka shiner was living in multiple streams in the North Raccoon River watershed. In 2015, federal funding became available to purchase specific parcels in the watershed to protect the minnow.
After the Topeka shiner project closed, Gansen started to receive calls from neighbors who were also interested in selling their property.
“Some were recreational landowners and some were calling from estates,” he said.
The Iowa DNR has been working with the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to purchase land from willing sellers for appraised value. One family – the Gorsuchs – had used part of their land as their own private getaway. They had always allowed others to hunt their land, but now their kids away at college and the getaway wasn’t getting much use.
Another tract was purchased from a sand and gravel company who had a lot of land that it wasn’t using. It has oak savannah knobs by the river and an abandoned quarry that offers 8-9 acres of good fishing.
One section of the parcel had a dove food plot last year but this year it will have food plots of turnips and winter wheat attractive to deer and turkeys. The area had just been mowed to prep the site. Gansen expects it to be green for this fall, once the rain returns.
Across the road, an 80-acre tract will be allowed to return to forest with nut producing trees and shrubs interspersed to add diversity.
The latest acquisition – a 65 acre tract - was just closed on a few weeks ago. Now the work begins.
DNR staff will clean up the old farmhouse foundation and remove rusting farm machinery and house appliances, lawn mower and sewing machine, livestock feeders and more. Property signs have not yet been installed.
“Some of these areas are so new that we don’t have a lot of history on what flora and fauna is here,” Gansen said.
Management varies by parcel – one section in a floodplain has a 100-acre prairie and wetland basins built to flood each spring. Gansen planted sections of the area with nut-producing oaks, hickories and walnuts favored by many different wildlife species. He opted to plant larger trees to get them established before the much more wet soils tolerant but less wildlife beneficial willows, silver maples and cottonwoods appear.
“We want to be sure there is a hard mast producing component on the floodplain as the area matures,” he said.
The young prairie wetland area is alive with grasshoppers, monarchs, swallows, dragonflies darting, zagging and bombing under the watchful eye of an immature bald eagle. Three young crow-sized pheasants darted from the mowed area to the safety of the taller prairie grasses.
Paddlers finding the area
The North Raccoon Wildlife Area is bisected by the North Raccoon River giving paddlers, anglers and other river users the unique opportunity to camp on the sandbars on the public area. If the river is high, they can move their campsite to the wildlife area.
“These aren’t standard camping sites, these are remote spots for paddlers looking for a specific experience,” Gansen said.