Inspired by Ancient Oaks
Cal Parrott simply wanted a place to explore where he could spend more time in nature with his photography hobby. In 1998, he purchased some land near Council Bluffs — not knowing it was the first step on a fascinating educational journey and a new door to conservation leadership.
The Parrott household values lifelong learning. Cal and his wife, Frankie, both came from educator households and focused their careers on education. Even so, Cal seems surprised to look back and see how very much he has learned and experienced since buying his land and exploring the big topic of natural resource management.
He started with the overgrazed pasture, using his background in agronomy and animal nutrition, to improve its health and photograph its recovery. He soon discovered the area was a pastured oak savanna, where native prairie could be coaxed back under the spreading bur oaks.
“One thing led to another,” he says. “I heard of people trying to take land back to what it was like when Lewis & Clark came through Iowa. That became a big point of reference for me — those big bur oaks were here in those days.”
Reading and talking with others who had successfully restored their land motivated Cal to expand his land restoration project. Over the years, the couple has converted cropland to native vegetation, continued to improve the oak savanna and forest on the property. Chad Graeve served as a catalyst in Cal's restoration journey. As the natural resource specialist for Pottawattamie County Conservation, Chad advises landowners interested in conservation and directs ecological management on county conservation lands. Cal found Chad's progress at Pottawattamie County's Hitchcock Nature Area inspiring. Chad found Cal's progress with his land equally exciting.
"The strongest form of leadership is leading by example," Graeve said. "Cal wasn't just doing the work on the land for himself. He was doing it for the critters, for his family and friends who come to visit. His restoration set an example for others to watch and consider."
Having found that their land was among the top-ranking sites in the county for ecological value and potential, the Parrotts began working with INHF in 2012 to start the process of turning their land into a public wildlife area. They donated one-third of the value of the land in a bargain sale to INHF to make the project financially feasible.
“It’s a balancing act: comparing the goal of protecting the land with the economic impact of doing that,” Cal said. “I talked with my tax planner, and he saw the tax savings [of a bargain sale] would be substantial. Looking at our bottom line, the net we’d receive would likely be similar whether we donated 1/3 of the value or sold the land at full price.”
Pottawattamie County Conservation now owns the site and will continue its restoration. The Parrotts retained use of the land through 2015, giving Cal more time to continue the fun of restoring the site and giving the county time to raise the $650,000 needed to complete the project.
During this time, Cal continued to provide leadership to the Pottawattamie Conservation Foundation. As a volunteer on their board, Cal has been champion for conservation projects and a leader for the endowment campaign that will help the county's natural resource management well into the future.
The land that started this educational journey for Cal is now known as Wheeler Grove Conservation Area, reflecting the historic name for this neighborhood. The Parrotts hope people find it a place to learn about nature, take photographs, enjoy the wildlife, fish a little and watch the land return to its roots — just as they have.
“It’s a positive feeling to preserve a piece of ground. It’s a lasting feeling. People will enjoy this ground for many years to come," Cal said.