Today we have another image from the Loess Hills of western Iowa. This photo was taken at sunrise late last October, just as the first rays of morning began to illuminate the ridge line.
The Loess Hills region is one of fascinating geology and a living example of how land-use has altered our native Iowa landscape. The hills themselves rise 150-200 feet in elevation from the Missouri River Valley, and extend in a band two hundred miles long and up to fifteen miles wide from approximately Sioux City to St. Joseph, Missouri. The formations began to develop about twenty thousand years ago as Pleistocene era glaciers started to retreat and massive floods deposited sediments of silt, clay and fine sand along the Missouri River basin. As flood levels dropped, these sediments were exposed to the wind and carried to form the hills we see today. While smaller Loess formations can be found throughout the world, nowhere but Iowa and Shaanxi, China can claim examples of this magnitude.
Prior to modern settlement the Loess Hills consisted primarily of a prairie ecosystem with some hardwood forests along waterways. Much like the rest of the state, this all changed as pioneers moved west and agriculture became a dominating force. Though the steep topography and easily erodible soil helped to protect the Loess Hills from extensive development, other ecological disruptions such as fire suppression took its toll. This allowed non-native flora such as red cedar and other trees and shrubs to encroach and overrun the once pristine prairie. That, along with additional human interference, also led large native mammals such as bison, elk, wolves, bears and antelope to disappear from the Iowa wild. Other unique species such as the prairie chicken, plains pocket mouse and prairie rattlesnake became increasingly rare.
Today, increased efforts are being made to protect and restore the endangered ecology of this region. Large tracts of land have been acquired by conservation groups and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and practices like prescribed burns work to regain some of the indigenous natural balance. Education, of course, is critical in helping people to recognize and appreciate what a treasure we have and to inspire further protective measures. Unfortunately state leadership has cut bureau of forestry funding by 50% since 2008 and other natural resource divisions have taken similar financial hits. The burden, for now, falls largely on volunteers and non-profits to salvage the legacy of the Loess Hills.