Have you ever forgotten an anniversary? I just did, but thank goodness it wasn’t my wedding anniversary or my wife’s birthday. The anniversary that slipped by me didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but was significant nonetheless. I began working as a park ranger/naturalist for the Story County Conservation Board in 1973. In 1977, just over 40 years ago, my boss, Conservation Director Bob Pinneke, advised that I should start writing for the local paper.
Story County Conservation was engaged in a battle of sorts back in 1977. The board had begun moving forward back in 1973 on a project that was a relatively new and novel idea at the time. It was called the Skunk River Greenbelt, and was the board’s preferred alternative to a large flood control reservoir that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed to build just a couple of miles above Ames. The corps had been forced to withdraw their proposal several times before when it was brought forward and debated. Opposition to the project tended to center on resource conservation and cost, but the corps was trotting it out one more time. Opposition to the reservoir proposal was pretty well organized in conservation circles by then, but farming and business interests from areas upstream from the proposed project were also fighting it. Some of the opposition was coming from the Ames area, too, even though Ames was to be the primary beneficiary of the proposed dam. Story City was the center of opposition to the reservoir, so it was natural that I approached my old friends at the Story City Herald about writing a column that would feature news and information about the wonders that nature had to offer — particularly in the beautiful wooded valley we were calling the Skunk River Greenbelt.
The paper said I’d need a byline. I didn’t even know what that was, but knew I had to quickly come up with a name to sit at the top of the weekly column. Thus was born Naturally Speaking in the March 16, 1977, edition of the Story City Herald. I pecked those early columns out on a little portable typewriter sitting on an old metal army desk (government surplus) sitting in the small office we’d walled off in the corner of the shop at McFarland Park. They were double spaced to allow room for editors to make corrections. Ole Smedal began running (and editing) the column in the Ames Tribune in a couple of years. There was no spell-check on that old typewriter and I was never that great at spelling. I didn’t even have those little white correction strips we used to use to type over mistakes. The column graduated to an IBM electric typewriter with built-in correction tape and changeable type balls in a couple of years, and finally, after several more years, to an early version of word processing on a computer. There was still no spell-check and double spacing for the editor was still in order. Even today I can sometimes sneak mistakes past my own proofreading and the spelling and grammar checking features of modern word processing.
The column, for the most part, has remained true to its original goal — that of sharing the wonders and beauty of the great outdoors right here around home in Story County. It has reported on various conservation issues, documented floods, droughts and severe storms. Interesting plants, birds and animals that live here or migrate through here have been featured. The needs of these precious parts of our natural heritage have been an often-recurring theme, as has the ongoing lack of funding to cover their management needs in this most ecologically altered state in the nation. The Iowa DNR’s budget is less today than it was way back then, especially when measured against inflation. Occasional personal items like marriage, the birth of children and grandchildren, and even retirement found a place. There have been too many changes in the past 40 years to list in a month of columns, but some things seem never to change. One thing, as in the past, is thankfully true. Spring follows winter and with it come spring flowers. The first blooms of hepatica are waiting to greet you along the trails at McFarland Park, Hertz Woods, upstream from Soper’s Mill, and at Robison Park.
Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at email@example.com.