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Partners in preservation

By Staff | Apr 22, 2008

SPIRIT LAKE — In a land where natural resources are royalty, they are enhancers. Safeguarding these wonders of nature where they are preeminent — in the Iowa Great Lakes and surrounding areas — is their calling. Steve Anderson and John Wills — urban conservationist and Clean Water Alliance coordinator, respectively — are protectionists in a land of plenty.

Both men work out of the Dickinson County Soil and Water Conservation office in Spirit Lake, and although they often find conservation and ecological issues of common concern, there are distinctions in their roles.

Anderson, who was hired in January under an initiative embarked upon by Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, became one of four regional urban conservationists in the state.

After beginning his conservation career as a naturalist intern for the Dickinson County Conservation Board, Anderson accepted the role as Clean Water Alliance coordinator for the county. He flourished in the job, taking the statewide lead in incorporating Low Impact Development techniques — such as managing storm water runoff with wetlands, bio-swales and rain gardens — into Lakes landscapes, often through dogged determination and sometimes by refashioning city ordinances.

Anderson’s reputation served him well as he was selected to head one of the urban conservation field offices in Spirit Lake, the only rural site selected in the new program. The other three are based out of the large metro areas of Des Moines, Council Bluffs and Waterloo. The positions are funded through the Iowa Department of Ag and Land Stewardship, Division of Soil Conservation, and enhanced with Resource Enhancement and Protection money.

Although there are no defined boundaries in the initiative, Anderson expects to work putting conservation practices on Lakes area landscapes and perhaps as far-reaching as the northwest quadrant of the state. “Hopefully, the program will succeed and we will be able to add more urban conservationists around the state,” Anderson said.

Wills, a northwest Iowa native who worked in conservation roles throughout the ’90s — including as CWA coordinator — was hired in March to fill Anderson’s vacancy. It is a role that has truly brought Wills full circle.

After working with the Loess Hills Alliance in western Iowa, he joined the Army shortly after Sept. 11, 2001 to serve his country in the war on terrorism, a stint that lasted more than five years in different sites around the globe.

After returning home and teaching high school biology at a home school academy in Rock Rapids, Wills learned of the CWA opportunity and won the job over several other applicants. “I couldn’t believe my good fortune,” Wills said, “to return to the Iowa Great Lakes and work on issues I’m passionate about.”

The CWA coordinator’s position is funded through grants from IDALS, the Dickinson SWCD and the Dickinson County Water Quality Commission. Wills works with the dozens of federal, state and local partners in the CWA — including agencies, organizations and individuals — to improve water quality in the Iowa Great Lakes. “I will also seek non-traditional water partners, like developers,” Wills said. “We want to work with everyone.”

Wills’ Iraq experience heightened his appreciation of water. “Water is one of the most important resources we have,” Wills said. “It is used as a weapon in Iraq, and I foresee wars being fought over water in the Middle East.”

Wills beseeches others to appreciate water. “We are fortunate here in northwest Iowa, and we must be responsible in our use of water,” he said. “One of my messages is that we stop taking for granted the natural resources we have and use them responsibly.”

Wills and Anderson, whose paths meet almost daily because of the close proximity of their office spaces, often find themselves involved in common issues. “It’s only natural that people seek us both out when dealing with water quality and conservation issues,” Anderson said. Both men expect to be consulted on such issues as LID implementation, erosion and sediment control, environmental outreach opportunities and other related challenges.

Water and natural resources are also influential in both men’s lives outside of work. Each grew up in nature and outdoor experiences. Their shared passions of hunting, fishing, bird watching, swimming and beyond are rooted in water.

“My best childhood memories are connected with water resources, like a creek near Estherville where we would sneak away and catch frogs and fish,” Anderson said. He now shares such experiences with his wife, Sara, and their 9-month-old son, Will.

“I immerse myself in water-related activities and challenges,” said Wills, who takes along his 12-year old daughter, Mariah, on many occasions. “We’re leaving a legacy for future generations.” Reconnecting people to land and water resources is in their blood. For Anderson and Wills, it is a labor of love.