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Feven Getachew
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Michael Lozada
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Nathan Hoffman
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Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
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Couple donates land to conservation trust

On Dec. 8, 2017, Jim and Kathy Kessler donated a large chunk of land just south of Interstate 80 to the Bur Oak Land Trust. The Kesslers bought the 30-acre parcel of land in 1998. Over the past 20 years, the Kesslers and their oldest son have spent thousands of hours restoring this land.

“[We restored this land] to a habitat [of] prairie, wetland, oak savanna and a woodland that are in as close to a natural state as we can get,” Jim Kessler said.   

When Jim Kessler was growing up in Iowa, most farming was inherently organic. Chemicals and pesticides were not introduced until after World War II and did not become widespread until the 1970s. According to Kessler, prairie in Iowa has seen a drastic reduction ever since.

“We actually lost a lot of prairie because of high corn prices,” he said. “A lot of lands in the Midwest got plowed that should be grasslands, but economics ruled, and a lot were destroyed … there’s been a huge change in landscape in the last 10 to 15 years.”

Kessler recalled seeing a plot of virgin, unplowed, prairie in 1974 be converted to farmland the following year. 

“I saw that incredibly beautiful landscape that was Iowa just disappear in front of my eyes,” he said. While it broke his heart to see such destruction, the experience served to motivated him and his wife, Kathy.

A high school biology teacher in Newton, Iowa, Jim Kessler used to cultivate a small plot of prairie behind the high school and would take his classes out to do experiments. He and Kathy, an avid birder, also housed backyard butterfly gardens. The couple made the 1998 land purchase with the hope of expanding their efforts. 

“When we started there were just a few native species on the place, and now there are over 275 native species,” Jim Kessler said. “We’ve worked really hard to make sure the species we’ve reintroduced are native to Poweshiek country.”

The Kesslers’ land requires a variety of upkeep methods. For the prairie, the land was turned and replanted when it was first acquired by the Kesslers. The other habitats were spread with seeds and then burned. A burn schedule of every three to four years has since been administered by the Kesslers to control invasive weeds.

After this decades-long restoration project, the Kesslers decided at the end of last year to donate their land to the Bur Oak Land Trust. 

“We just couldn’t bear the idea of it getting plowed in a day, or turned into houses,” Kessler said.

Based in Iowa City, Bur Oak Land Trust owns “10 parcels totaling ~375 acres and hold[s] conservation easements on another 13 parcels totaling 335 acres,” wrote Tammy Wright, executive director of the trust, in an email to The S&B. 

The Bur Oak Land Trust relied on over 300 volunteers in 2017 to work on their properties, which are donated in varying conditions, some reconstructed and some native prairies or woodlands. “[The trust’s mission] is to protect and conserve natural areas of Johnson and surrounding counties for future generations,” Wright wrote. “The land that we protect offers future generations open spaces that harbor many species of plants, animals and other wildlife. … Once it becomes asphalt and rooftops, it’s very difficult to return it to nature.”

Although further west than most of Bur Oak’s holdings, the Kessler’s donation fits in with the Trust’s mission.

“The Kessler property is a beautiful example of a family loving and nurturing the land, protecting its natural beauty and environmental integrity,” Wright wrote. “They have worked countless hours and decades to provide a legacy for future generations, not only their grandchildren, but everyone else’s.”

Land trusts, however, are not the only initiatives to preserve nature in Iowa. Other types of projects, such as prairie strips around corn and soy fields, are being implemented by groups such as the University of Iowa. According to Jim Kessler, the prairie strips reduce erosion and fertilizer runoff while providing habitats for pollinators. 

“There’s a movement in that direction. It’s slow, and people think about the dollar, trying to make a living,” Jim Kessler said. 

The Kesslers still own the two acres of land on which their house stands, and although they have granted the Bur Oak Land Trust responsibility for the land’s upkeep, the Kesslers will continue to maintain the land for as long as they are able. In addition to maintaining his own land, Jim Kessler continues to teach biology at the Iowa Valley Community College and gives talks to community groups across the state and country on prairie restoration and backyard butterfly gardens.

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