We just returned from driving over 3,000 miles to visit our son and his wife in northern New Jersey, and, though we saw a lot of interesting country, Iowa looked pretty sane and inviting when got back. Iowa may well be the most ecologically altered state in the nation, with only fragments of its original ecosystems still present, but even corn and bean fields leave a person with a sense of open space. Interstates 80 and 35 may have heavy traffic at times, but they seldom compare to the I-95 corridor that extends from New York to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Even the local feeder highways into that eastern traffic nightmare sometimes look more like parking lots than transportation routes. It’s tough to find alternate routes out east as the roads wind around hills and valleys. All roads out there seem to be sucked into the nearest city almost like a black hole swallowing everything around it. A person can always get off the interstate in Iowa and soon find peaceful county and state highways going almost the same direction, but with almost no traffic. Speeds may be slower off the interstates, but the scenery is often better and nerves are far less frazzled.

We actually saw some rural areas in western New Jersey on our trip home. The farms were rolling, beautiful and green, with a mix of hay fields and a few scattered crop fields that were quite varied with corn, soybeans, harvested oats and other crops. There was even some shocked small grain in Amish areas. The roads were well paved, but narrow and winding with little or no shoulder or road ditch. Old stone homes and barns were sometimes only a few feet off the side of the road. Some of those roads were already named and in use in colonial times and have been traveled for more than 200 years. City streets in some are also narrow and with little setback from the buildings. Some of them probably date back at least 200 years, too. Narrow and winding though the roads may be, the locals don’t slow down much. Some brave (or crazy) bicyclers share those same roads with speeding cars and trucks. I’m glad my son was driving much of the time we spent with them. I’d almost certainly have ended up lost, in a wreck, or both.

The emerald ash borer has been in Iowa for several years, and the first major die-offs of ash trees have begun in our area. Story City’s ash trees are heavily affected and many are dead or dying. Emerald ash borer damage to urban and rural forest areas is much more widespread in areas to our east. Few if any ash trees remain alive in some parts of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey where we traveled. Woodpecker numbers will likely increase for a few years as the dead trees begin to rot and become infested with a variety of boring insects and their larvae. Alien invasive species like tree of heaven, purple loose strife, kudzu, Asian honeysuckle, European bittersweet and others are even more common out east than here in Iowa. Many of Iowa’s oaks are struggling against a variety of stresses, including diseases and herbicide drift. Thankfully, the eastern forests still have a wide variety of native oaks that appeared to be doing well.

Most of the birds we saw were the same ones that we see here, but a black vulture flew over just as we left our son’s church. A few have been seen in Iowa, but that was a new specie for me. They’re similar to our turkey vultures, but lack the red head and have wider, shorter wings. They sometimes soar like turkey vultures, but flap and sail more. They also are known to follow turkey vultures because they lack the turkey vulture’s highly developed sense of smell. Turkey vultures are able to detect dead meat from long distances and can find food they can’t even see. Black vultures follow them to it.

The eastern United States may have centuries of history and in spite of its huge and almost continuous cities, it offers more varied ecologic communities ranging from coastal beaches and salt marshes to large and small rivers and forested mountains. Some of its most famous wildlife areas are surrounded by heavy urban development. It’s certainly an interesting place to visit, but I’m glad I don’t have to live there!

Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.