Neste Valley and Dry Run. (Photo by Barbara Schroeder)
Imagine 43 miles of trail with a heritage park nestled along a creek bank.
The Winneshiek County Conservation Board has initiated projects linking the Trout Run and Prairie Farmer trails with the development of a new Winneshiek County park.
Once acquired, the 170-acre heritage farm southwest of Decorah will become the Neste Valley Recreational Area serving as a mid-way trailhead on Dry Run Trail, a proposed 8-mile trail link that will run parallel to Highway 52 between Decorah and Calmar.
Neste Valley Recreational Area
Neste Valley Recreational Area sits just 2.5 trail miles from Decorah. The Conservation Board envisions a variety of offerings from picnicking and camping, to hiking trails, a conservation education center and public hunting.
"This will be the first new land purchased for a park by the Conservation Board in 21 years," said Winneshiek County Conservation Board Director Barbara Schroeder. "We are excited to be able to protect this property and to make it available for public use, particularly since it will be so accessible from the Trout Run Trail.
"Neste Valley will bring so much to Winneshiek County, for residents and visitors alike. It will offer great outdoor recreation opportunities, provide a new destination for bikers, help meet the need for more camping and upland hunting options in the county and serve as a wildlife sanctuary as natural habitats become more and more scarce."
The farm that makes up Neste Valley was one of the first Norwegian settlements in Winneshiek County and still features many of its original outbuildings and the remnants of the historic log home, which was transported to a museum in Norway in 2005 to serve as an example of a typical Norwegian settlement home in Iowa. More than 70 acres of the park are covered with mature native woodlands and remnant oak savanna, and a mile of Dry Run Creek winds through the property.
Restoration work on the land has already begun to help renovate and restore the prairies, wetlands and woodlands on the property, and local wildlife groups and volunteers, including Pheasants Forever, have pledged their future assistance.
Neste Valley Recreational Area was purchased by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which will transfer ownership to the Conservation Board once all funds are raised. Northeast Iowa RC&D secured 55 percent of the funds with a successful $487,025 Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) grant, but additional grants and fundraising for the remaining $400,000 are needed for Neste Valley to become a public park.
Former property owners, Ingrid Neste, Mary Neste and Michele Stefanick, collaborated with the Conservation Board and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to help make the sale possible, donating a portion of the value of the farm. They were honored for their partnership at the 2013 Gift to Iowa's Future Day at the state capital, a day designated to celebrate and honor those individuals, corporations and organizations that have helped permanently protect land for parks, trails and natural areas in Iowa.
"The Neste family has a long land stewardship history," said Natural Resource Conservation Service District Conservationist Todd Duncan. "The family has installed multiple conservation practices to protect the natural resources on their farm. The land ethic heritage of the Neste family is a wonderful gift to the residents of Winneshiek County."
A long-awaited link
"Since before the Trout Run Trail was even completed, people have been asking when it will connect to the Prairie Farmer Trail," Schroeder said. "We are thrilled that this project is finally getting started."
The proposed route for Dry Run Trail will leave Decorah near the Highway 9 bridge and cross under Highway 52 following the historic path of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific railroad corridor south to where the railbed ends, and then take the backslope of 200th Street and Highway 52 until it connects with the Prairie Farmer Recreational Trail at County Road B16. The linked trails will create a 43-mile trail system, connecting Cresco, Ridgeway, Calmar and Decorah.
The trail will lead riders on a unique rural adventure along a riparian corridor, past limestone outcroppings and through rolling pastures and oak savannas. Dry Run Trail will connect the level grade, native prairies and farm views of the Prairie Farmer Trail with the hills, streams and overlooks of the Trout Run Trail. Neste Valley Recreational Area will sit just 2.5 trail miles from Decorah, providing an easily accessible picnic, camping and educational destination for trail users.
"The Dry Run Trail and Neste Valley Recreational Area will not only connect the Prairie Farmer and Trout Run trails, it will be a new connection to Winneshiek County's cultural and historical past," said Conservation Board member Nancy Bolson.
A mile of the proposed Dry Run Trail route will run through Neste Valley, but the remainder of the land along the route must still be secured. Many landowners along the route have agreed in principle to donate, sell or provide trail easements through their land to facilitate the trail development.
"These landowners have taken great care to protect this beautiful resource, and we are fortunate they will be willing to allow the public to enjoy it," Schroeder said.
In turn, the Conservation Board has agreed to help find funding for the replacement of two nearby county road bridges, one of which is closed and the other under a weight embargo. The county engineer has been working with the Conservation Board to estimate costs and seek funding. One of the bridges qualifies for federal funds but requires a 20 percent local match and the second does not qualify for any grants. To replace these bridges will require private fundraising.
"This is the kind of partnership we can be proud of," said Schroeder. "The neighboring landowners are providing the Conservation Board and the county as a whole with a great service by allowing trail access through their land. I'm happy to do what I can to help alleviate their hardship of being challenged by aging bridge infrastructure. When this project is completed, it will be a win-win for all involved."
In addition to the nearly $2 million in grant funds the Conservation Board and RC&D has already secured for the Neste Valley Recreational Area purchase and first phase of the Dry Run Trail project, it will also be initiating a private fund drive.
"Conservation and trail grants are incredibly competitive, and many require significant matching funds from other sources. The greater the community support we can show for these projects, the better our chances at getting outside funds to help make them a reality," Schroeder said.
Tax-deductible donations can be directed to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, 505 Fifth Ave., Suite 444, Des Moines, IA 50309-2321 and can be designated specifically toward Neste Valley or Dry Run Trail. Another option is to visit the webpage created for Neste Valley at inhf.org/neste-valley-recreation-area.cfm and donate online. Recognition donation levels are available.
For more information, contact the Winneshiek County Conservation Board at 563-534-7145.