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By Candace Manroe
From the July/August 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
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Like other nature lovers, I go wobbly at the knees for new life. Downy barred owlets, whitetail fawns spotted with innocence, a romp of river otters—makes no difference. The smaller and newer to this earth, the harder I crush. Yet on this sunny day at central Iowa’s Lake Macbride State Park, nature’s diminutive newborns weren’t on my mind. Spring was long gone, and summer was gasping its last warm breaths. All I wanted was to hike the trails at our largest state park under clear blue skies before the change of seasons. With 2,180 sprawling acres, Macbride offered plenty of interesting terrain to explore—and good odds against having to contend with a crush of hikers jockeying for trail space.
I’d found the perfect outdoors go-to for some head-clearing solitude under one of the state’s most venerable tree canopies: the park’s majestic white oaks include many trees 150 years old and up. But then something happened. Before it began, my hike was ambushed by babies.
Before choosing a trailhead, I’d driven through the park to sightsee and size up my options. The minute I veered onto a less-traveled extension of Sailboat Road, I knew the hike was off. The “babies” that hijacked it weren’t the furred or feathered varieties. These youngsters were flora—nine hundred seedlings, rising bravely towards the sun through their light-color plastic tree tubes. They stopped me in my tracks. Adorableness, turns out, isn’t species-specific.
Five hundred of the seedlings were planted in 2014, the other 400 in 2015, as part of a Forest Stewardship Plan developed for the park by foresters Joe Herring, David Bridges and Mark Vitosh. The feistiest of the seedlings had pushed through the tops of their protective cylindrical tubes. I snapped away with my iPhone, documenting enough reminders of leafy new life to get me through the bleakest days of our next Iowa winter. Progress of the less robust trees could only be determined up close, by peering down the tubes. Or, if the sun hit just right, their silhouettes could be detected against their pale backdrops. I’m not literally a tree hugger, but I admit choking back the impulse to cheer on these 900 newbies—bur oak, red oak, white oak, black walnut and swamp white oak—growing on the 8-acre mixed hardwood plantation.
“When we started the project, the site was a mixture of elm, eastern red cedar and invasives,” says Vitosh, the DNR’s District 12 forester. “But we knew from the soil type that it originally had been a hardwood forest. We cleared the land and planted the seedlings in an effort to reestablish mixed hardwoods and especially oak.”
Financed by a grant from the USDA Forest Service, the stewardship plan goes beyond fostering the growth of seedlings. Its scope is comprehensive, addressing all the ways to best manage the park’s forest cover. One of the key conservation tools recommended in the plan is the systematic burning of the “understory” (growth beneath the tall tree canopy) every few years in the spring or fall in some of the park’s woodland stands.
“We use prescribed fire to help maintain open woodland habitat and to potentially regenerate oaks, which can’t grow in shaded and dense understory,” Vitosh explains. “Fires also help reduce regrowth of invasives like honeysuckle, autumn olive, multi-flora rose and barberry.”
Vitosh graciously gave up his afternoon to walk me through the park. He showed me where understory removal had occurred near the park entrance and again over 87 more acres to allow new oaks an opportunity to grow. “Young oaks can’t grow under the shade of big oaks,” he says. “So to sustain oak woodlands into the future, we have to clear everything in the understory.” This activity, he explains, mimics the effect that naturally occurring fires had on the ecosystem before the first settlers arrived.
Going back to nature—or at least emulating its ways—turns out to be the secret to conservation.
“If left alone, the future forest in the park would be mostly shade-tolerant species such as hackberry, elm, ironwood, sugar maple and basswood,” he warns. Even more sobering, he notes there currently is only 1 percent new oak growth in the entire park. “So without some management to promote oak, future generations of park visitors will not have a similar opportunity to enjoy the benefits of an oak forest that we’ve had—and maybe taken for granted—for the last 50 years. Our goal is to maintain oak forest on approximately 250 acres, or roughly 25 percent of the park’s wooded area,” Vitosh explains.
The management team inventoried 933 acres of the park’s woodland, walking every acre and describing the existing forest cover. Then they divided the land into 102 compartments or stands. A minimum stand spans one acre. The largest covers 39 acres, and the average size is 9.1 acres. “After walking the whole park, we divided it into stands so we could tailor our recommendations to the specific stand conditions,” says Vitosh. “We looked at the species make-up of a stand, and the size and density of its trees.”
One beauty of the grant that facilitated the forest plan is that it not only benefits the park but also some woodland owners in Johnson and Linn counties, who previously may not have even considered themselves forest owners. “Most people don’t think of five acres of private woodland as anything other than some trees in their backyard,” acknowledges Vitosh. “But a significant percentage of the private woodlands in these two counties adjacent the park are 10 acres or less in size, and their conservation is essential.”
The DNR partnered with Trees Forever, a local non-profit, to educate small woodland owners on how to manage their stands for optimum growth and habitat. “No matter the size, all woodlands are very important to the conservation effort,” says Vitosh, explaining Iowa’s absence of large forests means smaller pockets of woodland provide critical habitat and all other environmental benefits of forest.
A Trail for Every Whim
For park visitors like me, who prefer hiking under shade, the plan ensures the best canopy possible—large, mature trees, especially at the park’s west end. But the park’s trails aren’t just for tree lovers. They orbit the lake, and nothing beats a hike along the water for meditative time outdoors. One of the most popular trails is the North Shore, a 5-mile crushed limestone path stable enough for bicycles, strollers and wheelchairs. It links the closest town, Solon, to the lake, offering a best-of-both-worlds adventure—lunch at a restaurant in town, followed by a hike or bike ride to burn off the calories.
“Another popular trail is the Beach to Dam, which also is crushed limestone,” says Ron Puettmann, the DNR park manager since 1996. In all, some 17 miles of multi-use trails (those used for both hiking and cross-country skiing) vein out around Macbride’s 812-acre lake. In addition, three trails are specially designated for snowmobiles.
Iowa’s Premiere Spot for Spotted Bass
The lake is an angler’s delight—home to walleye, channel catfish, crappies, largemouth bass and muskie. Lake Macbride also is one of only a few waters in the state to challenge fishers with the prized Kentucky spotted bass. One reason the lake teems with fish is due to the DNR’s annual stocking of walleyes, channel cats and muskies.
And no worries if you’re not a boat owner. Access to the water is good for both shoreline and boat fishing.
“Fishing is the park’s number one draw,” says Puettmann. “The lake encourages non-powered boating. We have a 10-horsepower-motor limit from the Friday before Memorial Day through Labor Day, with a year-round 5-mile-per-hour limit.” So no hot-dogging here—something that anglers, hikers, birders and anyone else wanting to embrace the quiet heartily approve.
For anglers, swimmers and those interested in water sports, it’s a relief to know the water is good and getting better and better, after a lake renovation from 2000 to 2002 lowered the water level 20 feet so heavy equipment could access it for improvements to keep it clean.
“A watershed improvement project actually started right before the lake renovation,” notes Puettmann. “It was spearheaded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (along with several other partners), which had the purse-strings to provide cost incentives.” A result of the improvements is a shoreline protected with rock armor. In addition, a retention dam confines sediment to the upper end of the lake, allowing it time to dissipate before entering the main body of the lake.
A Lake For More than the Fish
The lake is a favorite for swimmers—open water swimming here is huge through late October and even into November. “Triathletes frequently practice here,” observes Puettmann. And while the beach is popular on hot summer days, the real draw is the diversity of activity that the lake provides. Concession sales are brisk with rentals of pontoons, paddleboats, stand-up paddle boards, kayaks and canoes.
“We rent out 76 pontoon slips for the season, which runs May 1 to Oct. 15. Plus, the lake is very popular for sailing,” says Puettmann, who helps oversee the park’s seasonal storage of 100 sailboats with park ranger Nick Rocca.
Located only 14 miles from Iowa City off Highway 1 and just 12 miles from Cedar Rapids via Country Road W6E, Lake Macbride has a built-in clientele. It’s a favorite haven for college students (and faculty) from Iowa City’s University of Iowa or Cedar Rapids’ Kirkwood Community College, who seek a break from the books with beach time in warm weather or cross-country skiing in winter. It’s also a beautiful gathering place to bring visiting family members for a picnic or a stroll along the lake. One hundred acres of reconstructed prairie ensure multiple seasons of native wildflowers in bloom, and the enclosed lodge can be rented for special occasions.
Camping for Fun and Birding, Too
For anyone who doesn’t live within a 15-minute drive of the park, Macbride is best experienced through camping. A modern campground at the west end of the park has 50 site pads with 37 electrical hook-ups, plus showers and restrooms. The primitive campground on the southeast side is close to the lake in a beautifully shaded area with 60 campsites. The difference? No showers or electricity, and only “nonflush” restrooms.
In the spring and fall, birds and bird watchers, binoculars peeled for migrating avian activity, are likely to outnumber other park visitors. A variety of shorebirds—loons, grebes, pelicans, cormorants, terns, herons and gulls, along with various ducks and geese—touch down during migration, especially along the mudflats when the lake is low. Then there are the usual suspects. Iowa’s regular shorebirds including the piping plover, American avocet, red-necked phalarope, willet, godwits, ruddy turnstone and four species of sandpipers all have been viewed at the park. In the winter, Macbride draws birders intent on locating certain raptors—the long-eared, short-eared and Northern saw-whet owls. Ospreys and eagles are perennial favorites.
But the park isn’t just about shorebirds or raptors. Nesting warblers and other passerines can be found in the wooded areas of the park in spring and summer. Each year brings with it certain rare sightings that make welcome additions to even the most seasoned birder’s life list.
Which brings us back to those baby trees. Without careful management of the forest habitat, the park’s bird life would not be nearly so abundant nor the park nearly so pleasurable. The good news, according to Vitosh, is that 90 percent of the seedlings that hijacked my hike have survived so far. And though the Forest Stewardship Plan was written to span a 20-year period, it is an active, working plan that can be tweaked every couple of years to make sure things stay on track.
For Vitosh, survival of the seedlings is personal. “I caught my first crappie in this park 40 years ago when I was 10 years old,” he says. “My hope is that this comprehensive cooperative forest plan will allow many future generations to make the same kind of memories.”