Yesterday was a strangely warm day in Iowa, 70 degrees in mid November. We saw the nice day coming on our weather app last weekend, and made plans to head out for a few hours in the sunshine.
But that is where things get a bit tricky for me here in Iowa. Having recently lived in California, and before that in Utah, I am used to the concept of "public lands," wide open spaces available for recreational activities. Lands where people - lots of people in some areas - hike or bike, boat or ski. Places where people get out for the day, enjoy the great outdoors, breathe and sweat.
This concept seems to be a virtually unknown phenomenon in Iowa. When people "recreate" in nature, that likely means they hunt or fish. The best "trails" we have found are mowed grass paths, rarely used heavily enough to pack down into dirt. Most often trails are paved and even though the walking is made as easy, people here still rarely use them.
Iowa, in other words, is the antithesis of Utah, a place where you can pull off the highway almost anywhere and camp on a public piece of property. Utah in fact has 35 million acres of public land - 75% of the state. That is almost the size of Iowa (36 million acres), which has by comparison only 1% of its land open to the public.
Arguably some of Utah's "public" land is in its five national parks - places which charge an entry fee (at least for the most popular areas). One could say having to pay to go onto land is similar to it being private property. A whole lot of Utah is also open desert no one wants to own but energy companies get to drill for natural gas.
A person could also make the point (as John just did) that much of the land in Utah is "unusable by humans" - rocky mountains or sparse desert, not good for agriculture or for building homes. Spaces that don't generate income, in other words, are often thought of as useless.
Which just feels sad. In Iowa, there is not a culture of getting outside in large part because there is nowhere to go. To me, it feels claustrophobic to have no outside escape like the Wasatch mountain range in Utah or the National Seashore in Marin. No big expanse of prairie close by to wander around in and see the big open sky, no giant stand of oak savannah for all to feel their smallness under the trees' grand canopies.
To me it also feels inaccurate to say that an "unused" area has no value. Even if we were to disregard the animals that use it, there is intrinsic value in human happiness and health - two things that are clinically proven to improve when people get outside and move. It is also notable that these are two traits many Americans struggle with. And with so few people in Iowa (or anywhere in the US) farming any more, many people spend the bulk of their life in suburban landscapes, unfamiliar with what a forest or the plains might really look and feel like.
But there seems to be an opportunity here too. In a state with so little in the way of public outdoor resources, an area with trails for hiking and mountain biking could attract a fair number of people, people who then also spend money in hotels and restaurants, shops and gas stations.
Our farm is a sizable chunk of the "outdoors" (without which I honestly might not be able to call Iowa home). Here, we are trying to cultivate prairie on our fields, and planting trees to someday become oak savannah again. We are also creating trails which we hope to someday open to the public, where people can come to walk or bike or simply be.
Perhaps then they will also buy some gas in town, and enjoy some delicious food (once we have it available) from the farm. Who knows, some might even pay to spend the night out in the country on a beautiful farm with our animals. Only time will tell.