The Forest is Bleeding

A letter from Executive Director John Myers — August 19, 2020

One of the most emotional moments I’ve had in my time at Indian Creek Nature Center occurred just a few days ago when I was cutting up the trunk of a maple tree at Etzel Sugar Grove Farm. This majestic tree — over four feet in diameter at the base — toppled over during the derecho, a storm that ripped through Iowa on August 10, 2020, reaching wind speeds of over 100 miles per hour and destroying everything in its county-wide path. The wind pulled the entire root base of this 80-year-old tree out of the ground and snapped its trunk and branches in several spots.

As I sawed through the tree, sap began to drain out of its woody and fragrant flesh. For two minutes, a steady stream of liquid gushed out of the tree. Standing among a maze of branches and dozens of trees lying on the ground all around, I became overwhelmed with the extent of damage our property had seen. This draining sap provided the greatest metaphor for the storm. Our city, our Nature Center, our people, and our trees are bleeding and I couldn’t help but cry. Hurting from a storm which has made a devastating impact, the trees will show their damage for generations to come. My children will speak of this storm to their grandchildren and great grandchildren.

In 2016, as we were getting to know George Etzel during his land donation (190 acres in rural Marion, now Etzel Sugar Grove Farm), he often shared stories from the past. One particular day he spoke about a terrible storm that occurred many years ago in which straight-line winds ripped through a few acres of his family’s forest. He shared the devastation that occurred in just a few minutes as mature trees toppled easily to the ground. He showed me the spot where tops of trees had snapped off like a twig snaps off from a dry branch and where these remnants lay on the forest floor decaying over twenty years later. The overwhelming sadness he felt for the loss of trees that were 50, 60, or even 100 years old reminded me of the importance of our tree canopy, not only on the environment, but on human emotions and on a person’s necessary connection to the land.

Trees inspire a sense of wonder. In my few years at the Nature Center, countless memories have been shared by both Teacher-Naturalists and the thousands of students they taught about Old Henry, an approximately 200-year-old majestic Silver Maple that was lost in the last decade. Once the second largest tree of its kind in the state of Iowa, people recall memories akin to admiration, majesty, and glory when speaking of Old Henry, a tree that began to grow about the same time settlers landed in Linn County. Soon after Old Henry came down due to old age and decay, people found a new tree on the Nature Center property to revere: a sycamore, not far off the Sac and Fox Trail. We believe it to be over 100 years old. She provides a connection to the past and generations that came before us. Thankfully, she made it through this storm.

The derecho that passed through Iowa was a storm that impacted our trees extensively. Indian Creek Nature Center and Etzel Sugar Grove Farm experienced something that was worse than any storm spoken by George Etzel. In 40 minutes, we lost at least 40% of the maple trees we use to educate and inspire children through our annual maple syrup production. We lost greater than half the pine trees in Founder’s Grove, a special place on our property celebrating our Founders, BB Stamats and Jean O’Donnell. We lost young oak trees that were planted around Amazing Space and old Norway spruces that were planted at the Penningroth Barn in the 1930’s. Trees that provided shade to people picnicking at the barn are now gone, letting sunlight reach the floor of the forest which hasn’t seen the sun in decades. We lost buckeye trees, quaking aspens, sugar maples, crab apples, and oak trees, all of which were planted in memory of or to honor various individuals connected with ICNC’s history.

The storm has had a catastrophic impact on our operations, in a time when ICNC is already stretched very thin due to COVID. We have been forced into another extended closure of our facilities, the second time this year. Currently, all of our trails near or through the woods are completely impassable. Of the five miles of trails on our properties, close to four miles have been directly impacted. Most of our facilities have sustained damage, though, through a stroke of luck, Amazing Space and the Penningroth Barn buildings are unharmed. ICNC owns six separate properties throughout Linn County and each have experienced extensive damage to their canopies. COVID and the derecho have both had a devastating impact on our attendance and have caused our program fees and earned revenue to plummet.

In the days following the storm our team of staff and volunteers mobilized to assess the damage and begin clean-up. Our woodlands are not safe to enter, mainly due to the hanging tree tops that could topple to the ground in a slight wind. These precious habitats will require extensive clean-up and more than likely remain closed through the end of the year. The damage to our facilities will be covered by insurance, but the removal of trees, restoration of our trails, and clean-up of our property are costs that we must bear ourselves. At least ten thousand-man hours will be devoted throughout the rest of this year for the clean-up and restoration efforts. In total, this storm will cost ICNC well over $250,000 to clean-up over the next few years, which does not include the thousands of hours of donated volunteer labor that are required. Already we have seen many volunteers and representatives from other local nonprofits and organizations step in to help the Nature Center, as well as some donations. This is just the very beginning of our recovery. We have a long and difficult road ahead, but are determined to continue our mission.

Indian Creek Nature Center has a specific vision, to create Champions of Nature. We do this by taking people into the forest, along the trails, and using the variety of habitats — prairie, wetlands and woodlands — to teach and engage about the wonders of our natural world. A significant portion of our mission, whether it is maple syrup harvest, recreation trails, or restoration of woodlands, has been directly impacted by this derecho.

We will recover from this disaster, but we cannot do it without your help. Please consider a donation if you are able. As Iowa’s largest and only private non-profit nature center, we do not receive funding from the government. We depend on the generosity of people like you.

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