Labor of Love
"Families get out of their cars in the parking lot and enter a whole other world,” said Sheri Blough Neff. “They step into the wildness of it.”
Dave Neff purchased 36 acres on the eastern edge of Fairfield in 1999, back when it was farmland. “Tadpoles were swimming in the bean field,” he said. “It didn’t want to be crop land. It wanted to be wetland.”
Dave put in an application to the Department of Transportation’s wetland mitigation program, and with highway construction happening in adjacent Keokuk County, they were plunged into the thick of converting the field within their first year of ownership.
The Neff Wetland is already familiar to residents of Fairfield who frequent the crushed limestone path along the dike. It is bisected by part of the 16-mile Loop Trail that encircles the town of Fairfield, linking Lamson Woods State Preserve to the south with the trails heading to Chatauqua Park. “On a pleasant, blue-sky day we might see 20 people an hour out there,” Dave said.
“I grew up in Cleveland,” he added, “playing in a string of linear parks called The Emerald Necklace. On a recent visit the memories flooded back of all the fun times we had. This is one of our hopes, for the future generations to be exposed to this type of greenbelt and have the memories last a lifetime.”
“This is a little piece of country life, with country sounds and fresh air,” Sheri said. “You’ll see black snakes tangled in the cattails, sunning themselves. You can hear the coyotes at night crying and chasing. You’ll see ducklings being kicked out of the nest. There are deer tracks and trails weaving through. Our neighbor says it’s a sure sign of spring when he opens the windows and hears the chorus of frogs. It’s a chance to see what the different seasons bring.”
The Neffs, longtime members of Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, turned to INHF to explore permanent land protection options. They decided to donate their property through INHF to Jefferson County Conservation Board with a condition that it remain open for public access. Jefferson County Conservation shares the Neffs’ vision of balancing the wildness of a place with recreation and education.
“The county will be responsible for the management long-term,” Dave said, “but in the meantime, we love to pull on our gloves and be hands on. It’s a labor of love.”
Asked what will change now that the land has traded hands, Sheri emphatically declares, “Nothing! That’s the goal. We want this to be here forever for the kids of the future.”