A little background…

Dick Van Deusen lived on the property at 5598 North Dakota Ave., north of Ames, from 1972 to 1998. Van Deusen now rents out the house that is there.

A retired veterinarian from the National Animal Disease Laboratories in Ames, Van Deusen said when he built the place in 1972, the road to his property wasn’t paved yet. Nobody else was really interested in the property, which sits along a steep slope next to the creek. But Van Deusen loved it. When the farmland across the creek came up for sale, Van Deusen was worried about rumors of putting a race track type business there. So, he and two other veterinarians he worked with, Dave Hughes and Hillman Nelson (now deceased), pooled their resources and bought that property together, continuing to run it as a farm.

Five years ago, Van Deusen said, he and Hughes learned about the Conservation Reserve Program through the USDA. “We found out we could really protect the land by enrolling in that,” he said. Their main focus was on prairie restoration, seeding the land to nature prairie. Three years ago, as part of the CRP, they needed to burn the land, and that’s when they hired Luke Gran of Prudenterra, to help them with the land’s conservation efforts.

Van Deusen said having Gran bring out all the students and knowing that there were enough adults and helpers to make it work was fantastic. “I raised my kids to appreciate what’s here and learn to take care of it,” he said. Now, he knows that his kids are teaching their kids to do the same. In fact, he said, one of his daughters is an elementary teacher in another state, and she wants to know how the Nevada kids do with their project, so she can try to bring about something similar for her students.

Dick Van Deusen admits he had his doubts at first about how it would work to bring 200 young elementary students — 100 at a time — to his steep woodland property, north of Ames next to the Squaw Creek.

But looking out over the woodland as 100 Nevada first- and second-graders, along with nearly as many parents and adult helpers were working and learning together, he smiled, and felt at ease.

Luke Gran, forester and owner of Prudenterra, a conservation-focused business, had convinced him it could work. “So I thought, if there’s a way to get them here and get their hands into it, let’s do it.” Van Deusen was so excited about hosting all the kids, he made a trip from his retirement home in St. Paul to be part of it.

The first of two elementary multi-age classroom groups from Central Elementary made their trip to the property, owned by Van Deusen and Dave Hughes, on Wednesday, March 28. A group of multi-age third and fourth graders took their turn a week later on April 4. The students were led by Gran and his team, along with high school student helpers from both Ames High’s climate change club and Gilbert High’s horticulture studies.

Gran, who has worked on Van Deusen’s and Hughes’ property for about five years now, has been a frequent guest of the multi-age classes in Nevada. Multi-age teacher Kedra Hamilton, commented, “Luke began looking for youth volunteer opportunities in his community several years ago, because he has an enthusiasm to share the wonders of the natural world with everyone, especially children.” Hamilton was introduced to Gran by another teacher, and invited him to get involved as a guest speaker with multi-age classes in the winter of 2017, as a guest stream interpreter for a creek stomp field trip in the fall of 2017, and as an assistant, working to obtain a grant to support innovative youth education, focused on improving remnant woodlands, which resulted in class field trips this past two weeks.

Working with young people is important to one of Gran’s personal goals — to grow the number of foresters. He wants to help do this “so that the special trees, plants, flowers and habitats for wildlife” remain better taken care of for years to come.

During the events with Nevada’s multi-age classes, there were three basic things that students were doing and learning. 1) They poked “live stakes” (native shrubs) into the stream bank with big kid and adult volunteers. 2) They planted native shrubs, trees grown in containers and native grasses, sedges and flowers “conetainer” plugs. 3) They picked up stones from the stream edge and placed them strategically below a tile outlet to temporarily mitigate erosion until a more substantial repair can begin. They also got to go on a hike around the woods, led by the Ames High students.

The woodland educational event meshed with the Nevada School District’s vision for “Preparing Learners Today for Tomorrow,” Hamilton confirmed. “We believe that this service learning site visit helped prepare our children to be collaborators and world changers. We wanted students to feel compassion and empathy as they worked to solve the problems identified by the forester on the landowners’ property.”

Most important, Hamilton continued, “This activity met our goal for students to know that they can change the world in positive ways and do hard work.”

Students commented after the event that they enjoyed everything, from poking live stakes into the ground to hiking and planting. It all wore them out for sure. “They got a little hungry from all the hard work,” Hamilton said. Trinity Farms, owned by Steve and Michelle Cassabaum in Nevada, provided a meat snack for everyone when they were done.

Hamilton said there are many to thank for making the event a positive learning experience for students. From Gran to the helpers who were present from two Story County high schools, the landowners who allowed it, parents and other adult helpers, to the Nevada Schools administration that supported the project, Lee Searles (an ecologist from Marshalltown who contributed input) and financial contributors — ITC Midwest, Nevada Kiwanis and Trees Forever — it took much support to bring it all together.

Along with conservation learning, Hamilton stressed, there were some less emphasized, but equally important lessons, like learning to walk safely in the woods through an active forest management zone, how to manage your body and keep your balance around steep stream banks and how to work together and patiently support others. “They got stretched a little with physically demanding challenges and a mentally stimulating activity that will be certain to make an impact on their lives,” she said.

For Gran, these events were awesome. “I believe that you don’t really know something well until you’re able to teach it to a child,” he said. “I love working with kids because they challenge me to justify my positions and drop the scientific jargon that permeates … all areas of expertise.” Gran said he thinks the knowledge of an adaptive ecosystem manager must be simple and easy to understand for it to be implemented across Iowa’s altered, fragmented natural landscape.

About the Nevada students and these events, he added, “I was inspired by their eagerness to help and learn how to work with nature,” and, he added, “I was inspired by (Van Deusen’s) introduction to the site and his gratitude for their support and interest in the land.”