Maintaining healthy native habitat is Luther College project goal

This summer, the Dr. Donald H. Nelson Woodlands was a focus of landscape restoration efforts on the Luther campus. Led by Luther Professor and Natural Areas Manager Molly McNicoll, Luther College Land Stewardship community volunteers and interns worked together in June to plant more trees in this developing woodland, where restoration work started in 2012. The multi-year restoration process holds many benefits for environmental and community health.

 “Nelson Woodlands is an important restoration from a human and a wildlife perspective,” McNicoll said. “People benefit from the improved water quality, as the permanent vegetation holds and develops soils, especially in this flood prone location along the Upper Iowa River. Trails within the plantings allow people to connect with the land and access river and pond fishing.”

Located south of the Upper Iowa River and west of U.S. 52, the Nelson Woodlands is open to the public with mowed trails for hiking access.

“The site has been a great place to experiment with restoration; we’ve planted prairie wildflowers beneficial to pollinators that also compete with weeds. Over time, the trees will grow and replace the prairie vegetation,” McNicoll said. The anticipated time for the restoration to look like a forest is at least 20 to 30 years, McNicoll said.

Luther has owned the land for decades, renting it to farmers for row crops for many years. After the 2008 Upper Iowa River floods inundated the land, Luther placed the land under the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, a federal program that reimburses efforts to stabilize soil, capture flood water and improve wildlife habitats.

Stian Krogstad, a Luther environmental studies major and land stewardship intern, worked on this year’s tree planting.  “I personally find this work to be beneficial because it allows  me to give back not only to the environment, but also to the previous land stewards to ensure their work and legacy live on towards a more eco-friendly future,” Krogstad said.

Those previous land stewards included Dan Gibson, class of 2016, who remains involved in the project. One of the original land stewardship interns who planted the first trees on the Nelson Woodlands in 2012, Gibson now works in habitat restoration for Jensen Ecology in Madison, Wisc. Gibson facilitated a donation of oaks, river birch, basswood and maples from Jensen Ecology to Luther College this summer so that forest restoration work could continue.

Current students continue to learn from this project. “The Nelson Woodlands project taught me the importance of restoring floodplains from an ecological perspective, as well as the importance of involving and educating the community on these practices,” said land stewardship intern Josie Meyer, who is majoring in environmental studies and biology. “Not only is it fun to get to work with volunteers on a project like this, but it is also so valuable to be able to spread knowledge about habitat restoration.”

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