In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the rise of industrialization and a rapidly growing population in Iowa were leading to urbanization. In rural areas, the growth of agriculture was snatching up land across the state.
The result: Iowa’s native landscape of forests, prairies and wetlands was rapidly disappearing, and there was nothing to prevent it. Before 1917, there were very few acres of Iowa woods, lakes and rivers where the public could enjoy the outdoors without trespassing on private property. The beauty of places like Backbone, the Loess Hills of western Iowa and the Maquoketa Caves were under threat.
But many dedicated individuals, some locally and others statewide, banded together to slow the depletion of the state’s natural beauty. They wanted to create a state park system, one that would preserve these lands for future generations.
The general idea for a state park system arose in the late 1800s, when the park movement was starting to take hold. In 1872, the national park system began under a single reserved land in what is now Yellowstone National Park. In 1885, New York became the first state to set up state-run preserves, including in the Niagara Falls area. And four years later, in 1889, Pennsylvania created protected lands and forest areas.
Around this time, in the mid-1880s, Thomas Macbride, a botany professor at the University of Iowa, called for a system of county or rural parks in the state. He called them “Places of Quiet Beauty.” As he set out to protect these lands, Macbride worked with Louis Pammel, a botany professor at what was then Iowa State College in Ames, and many other individuals and groups to push for statewide reform.
Led by some visionary legislators, Iowa passed a state parks bill on April 12, 1917, just a year after the U.S. Congress established the National Park Service. The legislation created a state board of conservation, which was charged with creating a statewide park system. In 1919, the board released a report identifying the most critical places in Iowa for acquisition as state parks.
This gave Iowa a blueprint to start and grow the state park system. In 1920, Backbone State Park in Delaware County opened as the first Iowa state park. It was soon followed by Lacey-Keosauqua State Park in southeast Iowa.
For the first time Iowa’s valuable landscapes were being protected and Iowa’s action received national attention. In 1921, the newly formed National Park Service held the first National Conference of State Parks in Des Moines. At that time, 29 states still did not have a state park system.
In the 1920s, state parks were being dedicated all over the state. They continued to evolve as well. As cars become more affordable and infrastructure improved, travel increased, creating a desire for recreational opportunities at state parks.
A large boom
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, Iowa’s state parks saw its biggest growth.
It was kicked off in 1933, when the Iowa Board of Conservation and Fish and Game Commission jointly issued the Iowa Twenty-five Year Conservation Plan. Like the first report in 1919, this plan provided another visionary blueprint for how to move forward.
The release of the report coincided with the election of Franklin Roosevelt as United States President. His New Deal legislation was geared toward putting people to work. Federal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) did just that, giving people income and lodging while they worked to restore the country’s lands and forests and helped to develop parks across the nation.
This had a tremendous effect on Iowa’s state parks. The CCC had more than 40 camps in the state, filled with young people eager to work. Using the plans completed in 1919 and 1933, the CCC and WPA constructed roads, trails, picnic shelters, cabins and other features to provide more recreation for visitors. This effort ended with World War II, when the country’s young men and materiel were needed for the war effort.
At war’s end, Iowans were yearning to enjoy themselves after hard times. Many turned to state parks, sparking a major influx of visitors. The Iowa Conservation Commission continued to find ways for new visitors to enjoy these areas. In the 1950s, ‘60s and 70s, the state built facilities to make state parks even more visitor friendly, constructing campgrounds and large artificial lakes for recreational boating. Some parks also began to allow hunting in certain areas.
At the same time the state park system was growing, state officials wanted to offer an extra level of protection for unique and scientifically significant sites throughout Iowa. In 1965, the state preserve system, which focused more on preservation than recreation, was created. Just a decade later, 30 preserves, including remnant native prairies, old-growth woodlands and rare geological formations, were dedicated. Today, there are almost 100 preserves throughout Iowa.
In 1986, the Iowa Conservation Commission was assimilated in a new agency, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, with responsibility for managing state lands and waters. One of the department’s first tasks was to renovate existing state parks, which were deteriorating from use, age and the elements. Thanks to a three-year, park-user permit program and new revenue sources, funds were provided to repair and update park facilities.
Into the 21st century, state parks and preserves have continued to serve as places of recreation and education. Efforts are always ongoing to renovate, improve and enhance the visitor experience while preserving Iowa’s beautiful landscapes.
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first state park, the system has come a long way. Now more than 70 state parks, recreation areas and forests, and most of the nearly 100 state preserves are open to the public every day. State parks receive more than 13 million visitors and more than 900,000 overnight guests per year.
Although Iowa’s state park system has a unified identity, today many of our state parks and preserves are managed by county conservation agencies, non-profit conservation organizations or municipalities. The stewardship of Iowa’s park system is in the hands of many Iowans across the state, working together to see that our “Places of Quiet Beauty” thrive for another 100 years.