"Enjoyment of what is essentially Iowa is to be found along the side roads, taken in a quiet leisurely way. Here the wild grape and elderberry drop their fruit almost into the wagon tracks, and hawthorn with its red apples colors the scene in the autumn. On the less-frequented lanes the woodchuck and cottontail rabbit venture boldly along the ditches, and the timid yellow warblers and other attractive birds fly through the bushes. Here, too, is the best chance to view the farmer's cornfields and meadows, and to converse with him behind his horses."
-Federal Writer's Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of Iowa, circa 1938. 1

Bordered on the west by the Missouri River and by the Mississippi on the east, shaped by glaciers and later humans, Iowa's land and landscape has its own unique variety to it. Grasslands, forests, and savannas dot Iowa's landscape - although more so in the past than in the present. The landscape of Iowa has changed significantly from just a century and a half ago, altered by a significantly increasing population and a rising use of intensive agriculture. Humans have lived in what is now Iowa for at least 13,000 years.2 After the forced removal of Iowa's native peoples in the mid 1800s, Euroamericans dominated the human population. They brought significant changes to Iowa's landscape, but the work of concerned citizens beginning in the latter part of the 19th century helped sustain portions of Iowa's natural areas in the form of parks and preserves. This section briefly describes Iowa's physical environments, and their connection to state parks.


Iowa’s land has been heavily shaped by glaciers, resulting in plains, rolling hills, river valleys, exposed bedrock, soil and rock deposits, and prairie “potholes” that resulted from large chunks of ice that remained after the glaciers moved on. State parks preserve some of the best geologic formations in the state.

Geologic formations in a few of Iowa's state parks include:

  • Gitchie Manitou State Preserve (originally Gitiche Manitou State Park): Precambrian Sioux Quartzite. 3
  • Maquoketa Caves State Park: Silurian-aged rocks and karst topography
  • Ledges and Dolliver: Pennsylvanian-age shales and sandstones 4
  • Wildcat Den State Park: Bedrock geology is composed of Devonian and Pennsylvanian Age rocks. 5
  • Bellevue State Park: Blanding Formation, Tetes des Morts Formation 6


Additional information on Iowa's geology can be found at:



While state park advocacy efforts included the preservation of woods and natural habitats, the state park movement took hold around preservation of Iowa’s lakes. In fact, the 1917 state park legislation was entitled “Public Parks on Lake Shores, Etc.” Lakes were a dwindling commodity in Iowa during the early part of the 20th century, with only 70 lakes held by the state in 1915.

Publicly ownedlakes were referred to as “meandered lakes” – a meander being the boundary between public and private land. Even though publicly owned, meandered lakes were problematic since people would inevitably need to trespass over the surrounding private land in order to access the publicly owned lakes. In 1915, Iowa’s legislature directed the State Highway Commission to study the meandered lakes and recommend if conservation measures should be implemented, or if the lakes should continue to be held by the state. The commission recommended conservation measure.7

The 1917 state parks legislation8 included several sections related to Iowa's public water areas. Provisions for building dams across streams and lake outlets provided a way to create recreational lakes within the state parks.The legislation also permitted county roads to be extended to meandered bodies of water within state parks in order to "make said body of water more accessible."

Water issues and policies would inevitably continue to be a part of Iowa's state parks. The 1917 state park legislation clearly shows that access to public bodies of water was a concern from the very beginning.


Saylorville Reservoir and the “Save the Ledges” Campaign

One example of a controversy related to Iowa's state parks and public water areas was the "Save the Ledges" campaign, an effort to prevent the Saylorville Dam from being built since there was a concern that the dam would cause increased flooding of Ledges State Park.

Students at Iowa State took part in these efforts. The Iowa Student Public Interest Research Group (ISPIRG) was a student organization dedicated to advocating for consumers and the environment during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1973 they initiated a campaign to prevent potential damage to Ledges State Park caused by increased levels of flooding due to the Saylorville Reservoir project. Their work included handing out informational pamphlets giving background on the issues involved.

In 1975, as the Saylorville Reservoir project was nearing completion, concerned citizens in central Iowa, including some Iowa State students and faculty, reached out to first-year Congressman Tom Harkin in an effort to save the Ledges from excessive flooding due to the Saylorville Reservoir project. The group was in favor of constructing a retaining wall to protect the lower Ledges from flooding, but funding and support for that idea never materialized.

Big Creek State Park, located along Big Creek Lake, provides a variety of recreational activities including camping, bicycle trails, and lake activities. The lake was created as a part of the Saylorville Reservoir project, providing a flood control system to the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers.