I belong to several organizations which work to protect and advocate for our natural resources. They include Pheasants Forever (PF), Ducks Unlimited (DU) and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF). I’m proud of the work that all of them do and am glad to be a small part of it. The work of the INHF, with its focus on local resources, is particularly important to me and has been since my wife, Sue, and I became charter members of the organization in 1979.

The INHF has played a major roll in several important projects around Story County, but its support didn’t take the form of cash grants. These projects might not have moved forward without the INHF’s help. They include an addition to the Doolittle Prairie State Preserve south of Story City (negotiation), the Story County Conservation Center at McFarland Park (arranged financing), Munn Woods in Ames (private fundraising), the Heart of Iowa Nature Trail across southern Story County (planning and grant writing assistance), the Jennett Wildlife Area south of Nevada (organization and private fundraising), Hertz Woods south of Nevada (planning and private fundraising) and the new Dakins Lake Park north of Zearing (planning, land acquisition negotiation and fundraising). Many other counties, the Iowa DNR, communities and individuals around Iowa could recite similar successful cooperative efforts that led to the protection and management of Iowa’s important natural and outdoor recreation resources.

The INHF is recognized as a national leader in the planning and development of bike trails, especially those involving abandoned rail lines. Their expertise in untangling complicated property ownership issues, planning, organizing, fundraising and negotiation with railroads, communities and private interests has played a pivotal roll in most of the major rail-trail conversions in Iowa, including central Iowa’s spectacular High Trestle Trail with its iconic bridge over the Des Moines River Valley. Their development of a smartphone application called Iowa By Trail was recently named Iowa’s best biking application. An Iowa By Trail website will be launched this spring to provide up-to-date information on all Iowa’s trails in time to plan a full summer of healthful, local, outdoor recreation.

Several hundred college students have gained experience and developed skills as interns with the INHF over the years. My daughter, Amy, was one of them. Many work as summer seasonal natural resource managers, helping to restore and manage some of the best natural area remnants left in Iowa. Others have served year-long internships in a broad range of roles, including marketing, planning and more, to help the INHF achieve its resource management and protection goals "For Those Who Follow." The experiences these young people have and the connections they make are helping many them become tomorrow’s critically important conservation leaders.

The INHF’s many partners, donors and members recently made possible yet another project, a land donation in Madison County. The donors had no idea that their piece of Iowa’s nature heritage would push the INHF’s successful projects to over 150,000 acres. Most of those acres are managed as public land by counties, the state and communities. Others will be protected in perpetuity, while remaining in private hands. If you’re not already a member of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, please consider joining hundreds of other Iowans in this important work by becoming one. Check it out at www.inhf.org.

Steve Lekwa is a retired director of Story County Conservation.