The many types of “Public Land.”

Hoffman Prairie in Cerro Gordo county seems like a good place to talk about “public land” and how it is managed and used. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer! Feel free to weigh in on legalties and analyze your way through the Comments section. I’ll stick to the basics, and sweeten it all with pretty pictures. I’ll start with a chilly autumn morning vista, showing the prairie dropping down into our wetland…


Public (conservation) lands in Iowa exist on a continuum of human use. Hoffman prairie is at one extreme, being a State Preserve. Such sites are protected for their unique value (natural, historical, cultural, etc.). In this case, beautiful prairie and wetland habitat are of such high-quality that they are to be kept pristine and with limited use by humans. Nature study and photography are about the only activities allowed. Photography?? How about a nice photo of a muskrat mound!


I suppose at the other end of “public lands” are State Forests. These are managed to provide nursery stock (trees for planting wherever needed) and revenue (leases sold to logging companies to harvest trees). You might even be able to find a sawmill on site: I have visited the mill at Yellow River State Forest in northeast Iowa; it has had tree stand management and a working mill since the 1940’s. Various recreation activities are allowed in these lands as well. These are “working public lands.”

Between these extremes are lands managed for a more or less natural habitat, and various human uses: recreation such as hiking, camping, boating, fishing (State Parks); hunting or trapping of waterfowl and furbearers (Wildlife Management Areas); or relax in luxury (State Resort).

Under the ice, some plants remain green…

And those are just properties owned by the State! The various size and type and use of county or municipal lands are all quite varied. In general, a “park” is a place to play, and anything with a habitat in its name (marsh, woods) or just “Area” is used for hunting. Much of the land in Iowa falls into these categories.

The Federal government also owns land which may be leased or managed by local governments, such is true for lands around my local reservoir (Lake Red Rock). Will land be planted to native species? Cropped as food plots for wildlife? Allowed to flood, be mowed or burned, or slowly change to woodland? Ultimately it will be the land managers who make such decisions, based on the goals for each parcel and its use “to benefit the public.”


We’ll think about these issues as we wander the 99wetlands and learn the lessons. But here at Hoffman Prairie we can also consider the benefits of cooperation between those in charge. According to Dale at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the site

…is both a State Preserve and TNC Preserve.¬† We purchased the property from Larry Hoffman in 1985, then the following year it was dedicated as a State Preserve giving it legal protection beyond our ownership.

And so we see an example of the power of working together: purchasing power, management know-how, and durable protection for the land in perpetuity. I think of these beautiful places as both our inheritance, and as a legacy we leave for those who came after us.

Dale also told me a little of the challenge involved in managing for an “imperiled” species (aka R/T/E, or Rare/Threatened/Endangered). This spot must be managed for an R/T/E and that would ideally include deliberately-set (“prescribed”) fire to control weeds and woody encroachment, promote biodiversity, and so on. Unfortunately, such fire might directly harm individuals of the R/T/E species. Tough spot—I wish them well, working through that!

I’m delighted to have legal protection for valuable, biodiverse habitat including Iowa’s wetlands on public ground. I am grateful for the work of dedicated public employees, workers at conservation organizations, private landowners and volunteers. Join me every week at 99wetlands as we tour the sites of their handiwork and hear their stories.

Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

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