Iowa needs its trees | News, sports, jobs

-Messenger photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby

Jen Merryman, second from left, a forestry specialist at Iowa State University, helped participants in the Iowa Master Woodland Steward Program with a tree identification exercise at Dolliver Memorial State Park south of Fort Dodge earlier this spring.

Iowa may be known for its corn and soybean fields, but this fertile landscape is also home to a surprising number of trees.

Iowa has approximately 2.85 million acres of forestland that makes up 8 percent of the state’s land area.

“Since Iowa has a population of about 3 million, and we have almost 3 million acres of forest in the state, that means there is about 1 acre of forest for every Iowan,” said Jeff Goerndt, state forester with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Most (85 percent) of these forest acres are privately owned by farmers and other landowners, said Joe Herring, a DNR district forest ranger in Iowa Falls. To help more Iowans effectively manage this natural resource, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and the DNR offer the Iowa Master Woodland Steward Program (MWSP), which recently completed a seven-week course in north-central Iowa.

“The goal of the MWSP is to develop a community of highly motivated, knowledgeable forest managers who are champions of forests and forestry in Iowa,” said William “Billy” Beck, an Iowa State University Extension forestry specialist and assistant professor in ISU’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management.

-Messenger photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby

Dr. Bob Hartzler, a retired ISU Extension weed scientist, second from left, regularly volunteers at the Christiansen Forest Preserve near Huxley. This spring, he showed participants in the Master Woodland Steward Program several ways to remove invasive species.

This is important because trees provide a wide range of benefits, from windbreaks and wildlife habitat to erosion control. From early April to mid-May, approximately 30 MWSP participants from Madison County to Marshall County to the Des Moines metro completed 30 hours of in-person, intensive forestry training in a variety of parks and other locations in northern and central Iowa from Dolliver Memorial State Park south of Fort Dodge to Dayton Oaks near Dayton.

The MWSP is intended for forest owners and land managers, school teachers, loggers, government employees, conservation specialists and others. The 2024 MWSP weekly module covered a range of critical forest topics, including an overview of Iowa’s forests and forestry; planning and goal setting; how trees grow; how forests grow; how forests change; forest management; and passing on your forest heritage.

Some participants, like Jeff and Louisa Perry of Bondurant, wanted to learn more about controlling invasive species.

“We have about 7 hectares of forest and want to learn how to prevent honeysuckle from taking over,” said Louisa Perry.

Another MWSP participant, Jan McGinnis, owns acres of timber around Marshalltown.

-Messenger photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby

According to Joe Herring, a DNR district forest ranger in Iowa Falls, the majority (85 percent) of Iowa’s forest lands are privately owned by farmers and other landowners.

“The derecho caused a lot of damage and uprooted some older trees,” she said. “I signed up for MWSP to learn how to better manage these forests.”

The MWSP modules are taught by a wide range of forestry professionals, including DNR staff, ISU faculty and extension specialists, provincial conservation staff, private consultants and contractors, loggers and timber buyers, private forest landowners and more.

“Participants also have the opportunity to connect with other people who share their passion for protecting Iowa’s priceless forest resources,” Beck said. “They will learn new ways to work with management professionals to improve and expand Iowa’s forest resources.”

Conservation and maintenance of Iowa’s forests

Although Iowa once had 6 to 8 million acres of forest land before pioneer settlement in the 1800s, preserving and protecting Iowa’s forest resources today does not mean going back completely to the 1840s and 1850s.

-Messenger photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby

During an in-person learning module at Dolliver Memorial State Park, William “Billy” Beck (left), an Iowa State University Extension forestry specialist, emphasized that the goal of the Master Woodland Steward Program is to build a community of highly motivated, knowledgeable forest managers who are champions of forests and forestry in Iowa.

“It’s important to look ahead, and planting trees is a big part of that,” Herring said. “It is good to reclaim some of the hectares where it makes sense, such as along streams.”

For more than a century, Iowa has had a law in place to encourage landowners to plant and maintain forests and fruit trees so that marginal croplands can be restocked with trees. In 1906, the Iowa Legislature passed a tax break for landowners known as the Forest and Fruit Tree Reservation Act (Chapter 427C of the Code of Iowa). “Reduce or eliminate property taxes to encourage landowners to turn their poorer lands into timber, not only as a source of agricultural income, but also for erosion control, watershed protection and wildlife cover.”

Landowners can still register under the Forest and Fruit Tree Reservation Act (commonly known as the “Forest reserve”) and are exempt from property taxes. A landowner’s private forestland must meet specific criteria. The law states that the forest area must be a minimum of 2 contiguous hectares, that it must contain no fewer than 200 growing trees per hectare, and that no cattle, mules, horses, sheep, goats or pigs are allowed in forest reserves.

Planting trees for windbreaks and shelters can also be part of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), noted Herring, who helps write these plans.

So who owns Iowa’s forests?

The vast majority (85.2%) of Iowa’s forested acres are privately owned. according to 2021 data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

About 11 percent of Iowa’s forests are managed by state and local governments, while 4 percent are managed by the federal government.

Iowa ranks 15th in forest acres among the 20 states in the Midwest and Northeast. Most of Iowa’s forest land can produce commercial timber. Black walnut and white oak are some of the most valuable trees in Iowa.

“Oak trees are strong, durable and long lasting,” Herring said.

Oak trees not only produce desirable timber resources, but also provide excellent habitat for songbirds and other wildlife, he added.

Forestry also contributes to Iowa’s economy. According to the Iowa DNR, forest-related industries in Iowa accounted for nearly 33,656 jobs (direct and indirect) in 2017. This accounted for 8 percent of direct manufacturing jobs in Iowa, and 10.6 percent of non-food manufacturing jobs.

“People don’t always think of forestry as an important part of Iowa’s economy, but it has a $5 billion impact,” Goerndt said.

Good forest management is crucial

Iowa’s forest resources reflect a surprising amount of diversity.

“There are bottomland riparian forests (covering wetlands adjacent to rivers and streams) and upland forests,” said Beck, who noted there are about 65 native tree species in Iowa.

“Forests in northeastern Iowa are very different than forests in southern Iowa.”

Diversity is a key to successful forest management. This includes not only species diversity, but also age diversity.

“It is good to have three different ages of trees on a plot, including younger trees, middle-aged trees and older trees,” Herring said.

This provides a wider range of habitats for wildlife, he added, and more diverse forests tend to have a lower prevalence of trees damaged by disease, invasive insect species and storm damage.

What is the biggest threat to Iowa’s forests?

“Do nothing,” said Goerndt, whose father, Randy, was also a DNR ranger. “Lack of management makes it harder for Iowa’s forests to manage a variety of threats.”

State and national surveys show that most forest owners are not aware of all the resources available to help them manage their forestlands.

Along with ISU Extension and the DNR, forest owners can contact the Iowa Woodland Owners Association (IWOA) at Founded in 1987, IWOA offers field days each year, along with the Timber Talk newsletter and additional resources to promote the wise use and management of Iowa’s forests.

IWOA and ISU Extension encourage people to get involved in educational opportunities like MWSP.

“We look forward to helping more people appreciate the many benefits that trees and forests provide,” Beck said. “This helps make trees more valuable in people’s eyes.”

Today’s latest news and more in your inbox

Back To Top