Dubuque County residents now have 89 new acres of untouched, historic farmland in the southeast part of the county — a place rich with wildlife and recreation potential on Lytle Creek.
The county in May 2018 purchased Bowstring Wildlife Area, 727 Creekbranch Lane in Bernard, after first investigating Washington Mill Bridge. The bridge is the primary access point to the area.
“Our county engineer has been on a mission to get all of our bridges replaced that have a load limit,” said Dubuque County Conservation Executive Director Brian Preston. “Luckily, this bridge was on that list.”
County Engineer Anthony Bardgett said the type of bridge — bowstring — is rare and also historical.
“It’s a national historic bridge, so we can’t just eliminate that bridge and build a new one,” he said. “We would either have to disassemble that bridge and reconstruct it to make it safe to be driven on or build another one beside it.”
The county ultimately purchased the property for $425,000. Bardgett said it was both a cost-saving measure and brought benefits to the county.
The property is a collection of oak-hickory, prairie, crops and wetland, isolated from the sights and sounds of a city. Preston counts that solitude among the principle potential uses of the site.
“It’s relatively untouched,” he said.
Preston said county conservation has been working with people from the Veterans Freedom Center in cleaning up the property.
“A lot of the veterans have PTSD so they want a quiet place to come out and relax,” he said. “They’ll be able to come up here and relax around a campfire, enjoy the silence.”
Preston said the plan is to prepare primitive camping sites on the property, amenities that have repeatedly been requested during the conservation department’s ongoing comprehensive planning process.
“People want more trails,” he said. “They want a more rustic experience. That’s part of the quality of life things we need to attract young people to the area.”
Preston also sees kayaking in the bordering Lytle Creek as a prime attraction for the new park.
“It’s amazing, the scenery along here with the rock bluffs,” he said. “We kayaked it in July. It was a hot, muggy day and there’s these cold air vents that come out of the caves along the water. It’s like air conditioning.”
Those very vents lend to the land a signature that could signal unique wildlife.
“There’s endangered species along Lytle Creek — the Iowa Pleistocene snail — because of those cold air vents,” Preston said. “Just downstream from here there’s a state preserve to protect those snails.”
Other unique wildlife has been on full display already.
“You talk to a lot of older folks that used to farm and bobolinks used to be really common in these pastures and grassy areas,” Preston said. “Gradually they’ve been declining and their population is in tough shape. So when I got up here and saw the bobolinks, I was so excited.”
A bobolink is a blackbird, distinctive in the males by a gold or cream-colored cap on the back of its head and nape. They migrate north from South America annually to breed.
“They’re only here for a short period during the summer — two or two and a half months,” Preston said. “But there’s so much production up here, they’re able to raise their young. There are so many insects, so much biomass that they can exploit, they rapidly develop and migrate right back to Argentina.”
Some of the area’s southernmost white pine and Canadian yews also have pleasantly surprised conservation staff and visitors.
There is a fair amount of work to do before the park quite meets its potential, however.
Already, 2,200 tires have been removed and cleaned from the property — most by area Boy Scout Ryan Kester, who is pursuing his Eagle Scout ranking.
Preston said conservation officials will slowly restore larger fields on the farm to prairie, giving wildlife time to adapt. The same will be true of planting trees on smaller fields.
When Washington Mill Bridge can no longer carry vehicles, it will be restricted to pedestrian traffic, making Bowstring a hike-in experience in pristine, serene Iowa nature.