Felker: Where has Iowa’s forest gone?

Alex Felker

Drive through the countryside and look out your left window. See the dirty, roughed corn scraps, the heaped silage, the stale water stewing in the prairie-potholes and the fresh, gopher-burrowed tile drainage.

Look past the waning gravel shoulder, past the strangely modern farmhouse, past the rotting barn and past the crumbling steel water tower. In the distance you may see some rolling hills — the kind birthed by glaciers. There will be a few little thickets upon each hill’s crest. The uninjured remains of days gone by; the residue of Iowa’s once great forest.      

Now, look out your right window. See the slow-moving creek sputtering for life, winding its way through a field of soy beans. There might be a few yards of sparkling green rush or sedge in between its banks and the row crop, and there also might not.

Then, the stream will disappear for a moment and suddenly reemerge an eighth of a mile downhill. You’ll know because of the trees — there’ll be a cluster of cottonwoods along each side of the bank, clinging to the creek channel’s slope like a troop of Spartans beaten back to its own rearguard.    

It’s no secret we’ve wrecked Iowa’s landscape. Farmland has a beauty of its own, yes, but an unnatural one —  the same way a skyscraper has beauty. And though much is perennially made of the destruction of our prairies, lost in our rememberings is the once-great Iowa wood, which, as a vanishing entity, is making such a more striking exit than the prairie. Corn and tallgrass share the same profile, after all.

For some thousands of years, and prior to European settlement, Iowa was part of the prodigious American hardwood forest, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to Iowa’s border with the Missouri River. Up to an estimated 20 percent of the state was covered woodland, amounting to nearly 7.2 million acres. Fewer than 3 million are left.

This forest is an integral part of our Iowa land cover — or, rather, it was. The trees themselves are of course used for timber — and new woodlots are planted every year — but the ecosystem is the real natural resource, and it’s the ecosystem that is in such a dangerous peril. It’s the ecosystem that provides the wildlife habitat, the watershed protection, the soil retention, the climate change mitigation, and, of course, the recreation. And, it’s mostly gone.

A window seat on a plane flying over Iowa is all that’s really required in convincing. What few little veins, ropes and strands of forest remain are simply the hangers-on, clustered alongside river banks and whatever other land deemed unfarmable. It’s almost a sad sight, like if all the picturesque mountains in Colorado and Wyoming were turned into alpine resorts, and all their wooded mountainsides shaved clear for smoother skiing.  

So, the prairie and the forest are gone, yes, but for good reason: Iowa now feeds millions. Over 90 percent of the state’s landmass has been turned towards agricultural ends, and the corn, beans, milk, eggs and meat the state produces have become its very identity. Iowa has some of the richest, most productive soil in the world, and we’ve made good use of it. Our state produces more corn and soybeans than any other.

It’s hard to argue against such production, right? How could we turn down more? How could we say no to expansion, no to growing as much food as possible, no to growth, no to following in our father’s father’s footsteps and no to feeding as many as we’re able to feed?  

Many will bring up the pesticides and fertilizers, the genetic modification, the pollution and other environmental effects, externalities, the livestock’s miserable living conditions, the soil erosion, the negative economic impacts, squashing small- and mid-sized farms and farmers into the dirt while destroying the farming communities that rely on their custom — all these and more are often used as planks in the inflammatory platform against massively industrialized agriculture.

But this is all nonsense. What is the implication? That farmers shouldn’t produce as much as they can? That they should eschew efficiency and economies of scale and profits, so that they might be more politically correct or environmentally moral? That isn’t the sort of world we live in. This is an impossible request to make. They cannot be blamed for whatever decision they decide upon. 

The obvious, more meaningful and yet least often presented case against our agricultural status quo is the miserable state that our Iowan landscape has been transformed into as a result. It has been pummeled, torn, transplanted to a hollow, indecorous shell of whatever it once was, and in such a dramatic, immediate and complete manner. We have thrown future generations’ welfare to the wind such that we might accomplish a bit more in the short term. So goes humanity.

There’s no need for any other sort of argument. The indigenous land cover shouldn’t need to be defended, much in the same way the rights of the Americans who lived here before European settlement shouldn’t need to be defended; they were here first.  

More than a purely economic or mechanical question, this is an ethical question and a moral question, and, like so many of the other impossible debates that our country faces, there is no easy answer. No easy solution. No easy way out.

Who knows how much of Iowa’s “forest” will even be left in 50 years? Obviously the prairie has already been destroyed, and along with it the species that relied on those wide-open spaces of the past. We have virtually terraformed our state and must now live with the consequences; or, to be more precise, our children must now live with these consequences.

These consequences, these costs, will never be realized by the private interest. They will always seek their own dollar, and they couldn’t be blamed for that. This is why the government must get involved.