CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- To learn how more than 40 years of conservation efforts have affected water and wildlife habitat in the Cedar Valley, conservationist Vern Fish defers to the experts.
Ask an eagle, he suggests.
Bald eagles migrating into the area this winter made headlines.
In Cedar Falls, an osprey nest has produced nine fledglings since 2005.
Fish, director of the Black Hawk County Conservation Board, says those birds' presence reflects the success of decades of conservation efforts. It also shows habitat concerns can be balanced with the needs of urban and agricultural areas.
"This says quality environment is not in opposition to quality of living and an urban environment," he said.
Today, on the 42nd Earth Day, the raptors' return to the area is a milestone, Fish added. When the environmental awareness day was established in 1970, the bald eagle was on the verge of extinction.
"Eagles were unheard of in this area," he said, "let alone nesting within the Waterloo city limits."
Fish describes the eagles and other raptors as "indicator species" that are sensitive to environmental contaminants and water quality.
The presence of species that were absent just a few years ago is a mark of progress in conservation efforts that take decades to pay off.
The state Groundwater Protection Act is 25 years old, and the recent re-establishment of these species is one of the legislation's many results, he said.
"These are examples of incremental change," Fish said. "It's not going to take one act of Congress, and you can't give any one person credit."
One man who laid much of the conservation groundwork in the metro area was former Courier publisher John C. Hartman, who in 1938 helped the local YMCA purchase 56 acres of forested land along the southwest bank of the Cedar River between Cedar Falls and Waterloo. That land is now Hartman Reserve Nature Center.
In 1976, the Black Hawk County Conservation Board purchased the land to establish an environmental education center. At the time, the area was only the second nature reserve in the entire state. Today Iowa has 67 such centers. The area is now seeing results from Hartman and other conservation pioneers' efforts, Fish said.
Purple, gold and green
New projects in the area have kept the Cedar Valley ahead of the curve in blending environmental conservation with urban and agricultural needs. The University of Northern Iowa campus now includes about 80 acres of native Iowa grass, prairie and wetland landscape. The campus is bordered by both urban areas and farm land.
"We have the unique opportunity to do some things on our campus that look at rural planning and urban planning," said Eric O'Brien, UNI sustainability coordinator.
The land provides a habitat for native Iowa plants and animals. After initial seeding costs, it also saves the university money on upkeep since it doesn't require mowing. Management of the prairie then becomes a hands-on learning experience for students. Various classes and campus groups use the prairie, including a graduate-level ecosystems management program, O'Brien said. The native grasses also take pressure off the university's storm water drainage system and filter runoff water.
Such environmental initiatives aren't limited to wildlife areas.
Renovated Sabin Hall, which was given Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification by the U.S. Green Building Council, has permeable pavers, which also filter rainwater instead of diverting it directly to drainage systems. Much of the water is retained to nourish nearby wetlands.
On the south part of campus a wind turbine and three solar panels provide more than 18,800 kilowatts of wind energy and more than 3,300 kilowatts of solar energy each year. A change in lighting at the UNI-Dome has saved the school more than $20,000 annually. The Center for Energy and Environmental Education heads off-campus and statewide initiatives.
Those initiatives have earned accolades, including a recently announced listing in the Princeton Review's "Guide to 322 Green Colleges." The projects also give private and public developers ideas on how to incorporate environmentally friendly designs into their plans, O'Brien said.
PFG a LEEDer
North of Cedar Falls, the PFGBest headquarters building has applied for LEED gold certification. The building incorporates many of the same designs, including permeable pavement to minimize runoff to nearby wetlands and Beaver Creek. It has a geo-thermal heating and cooling system.
Even the construction of the building took environmental impacts into consideration. As the foundation was being dug, the dirt was hauled away instead of piled on top of nearby vegetation and wetlands, said Russ Wasendorf Sr., chairman and CEO of PFGBest.
"Digging a hole that deep would have been very destructive to the habitat," Wasendorf said.
Wasendorf sits on board of directors of the Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit group dedicated to saving raptors from extinction. He said the area has seen a dramatic changes in the bird population, in part because of habitat restoration. The presence of the birds in Waterloo and Cedar Falls is a good sign.
"It's a strong indication that we've done a very good job as stewards of these resources," he said, adding that birds of prey are very likely to be affected by any type of pollution in the environment.
"I've actually seen five bald eagles at once fly by my window," he said.
Wasendorf said the results are worth the effort environmentally, but the extra cost isn't financially advantageous. The expense of diverting from conventional designs isn't reflected in the buildings' appraised value. The building is appraised for about half of its cost, he said.
"There's no credit given to the efforts I have made to make this building environmentally friendly," he said.
Until appraisers and lenders recognize the value of the new technologies, incorporating such designs into private development remains difficult, Wasendorf said.
In some circumstances, grants and public programs defray those costs. Tony's La Pizzeria, 407 Main St., in downtown Cedar Falls installed permeable pavement at the back entrance and a solar-powered water heating system. About one-third of the cost was funded by a $60,000 challenge grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Iowa Department of Economic Development.
Making such designs affordable is another step in the continuing effort to improve the environment, Fish said. That will likely take a few small changes over a number of years. After all, 30 years of small changes resulted in a large display of some big birds earlier this year.