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Former resident honors family connections in Fremont County by donating land in the Loess Hills to the Iowa DNR

  • 1/7/2020 12:33:00 PM
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Thurman, Iowa - William and Sara Blackburn, from Long Grove, Ill., donated 151 acres in northwest Fremont County to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources that will be used to create the Blackburn Wildlife Management Area and Blackburn Unit of Waubonsie State Park. The donation is valued at more than $515,000.

Blackburn traces his family history to southwest Iowa and was looking to buy property in the area when this parcel became available. After acquisition in 2003, he began working to turn his vision for the property into reality.

The family began hauling away junk and old machinery, and removed about 200 cedar trees and acres of tree of heaven and honeysuckle that were invading the native timber. They researched what prairie plants would likely have been on the area during settlement and searched for those seeds to include as part of the mix used for a 35-acre prairie restoration. They improved the oak timber, installed roads, trails and erosion control, and developed an open-air picnic shelter and performance pavilion, with adjoining boardwalk leading to a viewing platform. The family’s investment totaled more than $300,000.

In more recent years, the Blackburn property has become a popular nature preserve for the family and community, and site for weddings, graduation parties, and a biennial music festival, a charity affair that has helped serve tornado victims, a local library and, last fall, flood victims of Fremont County.

It was Blackburn’s wish that everyone could enjoy this property in the Loess Hills that has meant so much to generations of his family. Whether visitors come in October when the leaves are a shock of reds, oranges and yellows, or in June when the prairie is alight with wild flowers and alive with bees and butterflies, Blackburn said his goal was to spark visitors’ interest in the Hills.

“I want them to say ‘Wow! I had no idea this natural beauty was right here in my back yard! We have to come back!’ I want folks to realize this is something rare enough, enchanting enough to take care of, not just for their own use, but for their children, their children’s children, and all who come after them,” he said.

The 72-acre parcel containing the shelter-pavilion, stone viewing benches, and other facilities—roughly the southwest half of the donated grounds-- will become the Blackburn Unit of Waubonsie State Park. 

“It’s a natural gem that’s been well managed,” said Matt Moles, park manager at Waubonsie State Park who will manage the park portion of the donation. “It’s definitely a place that people will enjoy.”

Moles said the plan is continue to maintain the high-quality natural landscape, hiking trails and open-air shelter. A local fundraising effort and assistance from Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) allowed the park to receive a new pit latrine prior to ownership being transferred. The area does not currently have water or campsites.

“Mr. Blackburn has held charity music festivals here and we are interested in continuing that tradition,” Moles said.

The 79-acre undeveloped parcel to the northeast will become the Blackburn Wildlife Management Area and managed by the Nishnabotna Wildlife Unit.

“This is a really nice piece of Loess Hills timber with high quality prairie reconstruction on the edges,” said Matt Dollison, wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR who will be managing the new wildlife area. “The Blackburns did a great job of using a quality mix of native local ecotype plants to reestablish the prairie, and fire to manage it. They’ve also been vigilant in keeping unwanted invasive species off the property.”

The impact on existing and future natural resources is much greater than the value of the donation. The location is important as the Blackburn parcel links a newly acquired 200-acre Wiedel tract to its north and west with the 350-acre Green Hollow Wildlife Area. This resulting 700-acre wildlife area and park abound with turkey, deer, and a wide variety of birds, along with other wildlife.

More than a dozen threatened or endangered species have been have documented on the two areas, including the regal fritillary butterfly, the western worm snake, the plains pocket mouse, the great plains skink - a lizard found in few places in southwest Iowa, including Waubonsie State Park, plains spadefoot toad, six-lined racerunner and more.

“That’s a big deal,” Moles said. “This is some of the best, most cared for prairie that I’ve ever seen. And the views from the prairie ridges are phenomenal. It has some of the best oak woodland in the area that would be a great place for viewing wildlife.”

The addition of the Blackburn donation will significantly increase the footprint and permanently protect the habitat necessary for these species, and more, to survive.

“I firmly believe that the Loess Hills is a rare gem, a jewel, that we must protect,” Blackburn said.

A land donation to the Iowa DNR of this size does not happen often. The most recent comparison occurred in 2013 when the Larson brothers donated nearly 150 acres in Humboldt County.

The INHF played an important role in helping this donation happen.

"For years we’ve helped Bill explore ways that this special place could be permanently protected, so it is exciting to see this happen," said INHF Vice President Anita O'Gara. "We thank the DNR, the Blackburns and local volunteers for their diligence and patience in bringing together the ideas and resources that have protected this land for all to experience and appreciate. We were continually inspired by the Blackburns’ deep commitment to this vision for the land and the future."

The land donation was completed in early December.


Bill Blackburn left southwest Iowa, but southwest Iowa never left him

Bill Blackburn grew up in southwest Iowa and traces his family history in this part of Fremont County back more than 170 years. 

Blackburn received his engineering degree from Iowa State University and his law degree from the University of Iowa. He taught and promoted sustainability, and environment, health and safety in the corporate world until 2003 when he launched his consulting career.

He said the donation was a way to pay homage to his family, and for him to ‘walk the talk.’

Blackburn is a recognized corporate leader on sustainability. As president of William Blackburn Consulting Ltd., his firm focused on sustainability and environment, health and safety management, and emergency and crisis response. He is a published author of “The Sustainability Handbook – The Complete Management guide to Achieving Social Economic and Environmental Responsibility,” which is in its second edition.

Revenue from his consulting business and book sales funded more than $300,000 worth of improvements on the property.