The Friends of Hickory Hill Park help guide the beloved IC nature area’s future

Fall leaves at Hickory Hill Park, Nov. 1, 2021. — Jason Smith/Little Village

“Solitude,” “contemplation,” “sanctuary” — the Friends of Hickory Hill Park nonprofit uses these words to describe the park it supports. Unlike many of Iowa City’s parks, at Hickory Hill you won’t find the traditional swing sets, baseball diamonds or large shelters shading rows of picnic tables. Sure, Hickory Hill is a destination for winter sledders and features a couple small shelters, but for the most part, the park is a place where people go to escape into quality natural habitat and quiet sanctuary.

It’s a place where you can walk, hike, birdwatch, jog, dog walk (leashed, please!) or cross-country ski for literally hours with something new to see at every moment among several types of natural habitat native to our state: tallgrass prairie, oak and hickory woodlands and oak savanna.

As the social restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic sent more people outside to commune with nature, Hickory Hill, like so many other natural areas, saw increased use by local residents—and while that’s great, it has increased need for maintenance, care and preservation.

To preserve Hickory Hill’s exceptional character amid Iowa City’s growing urban footprint, it needs help. In fact, it needs friends, and we are fortunate to have exactly that in the Friends of Hickory Hill Park, a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to “permanently protect and preserve the park’s unique qualities as urban park land. Hickory Hill’s woodlands, fields and waterways provide habitat for a variety of wildlife and provide citizens the opportunity to enjoy a natural setting within city limits.” This mission is especially important today as the city continues to expand and develop, now extending to the park’s north and east.

Hickory Hill Park, March 30, 2021. –Jason Smith/Little Village
A bumble bee digs into some bee balm at Hickory Hill Park in Iowa City. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

The Friends’ genesis harks back over 20 years to 1999, for not-so-good proposals have often threatened the park’s unique quality: a 150-vehicle parking lot, a ski slope, a campground and a mountain bike course, to name a few. More than 90 percent of Iowa is rural farmland, and less than 3 percent is public land—one of the lowest rates in the country—making efforts to preserve, restore and even expand the state’s natural areas critical.

The great conservationist Aldo Leopold — himself a native Iowan — once famously said, “There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.” And truly that philosophy is at the heart of the Friends’ mission as well. While keeping the Earth’s ecology functioning for its own sake and the sake of its nonhuman flora and fauna inhabitants is increasingly important, groups like FHHP are also about people. As the Friends’ website says, “Promoting a healthy relationship between people and the natural world is central to our work.” As I’ve noted, the “sanctuary,” “contemplation” and “solitude” that the organization promotes are for the benefit of us individual humans.

Hickory Hill Park, 1st Avenue loop. Feb. 23, 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village
A family walks down a hill near the southeastern boundary of Hickory Hill Park. Feb. 23, 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

In yet another human dimension, the Friends promote community, Leopold’s “relation of people to each other.” FHHP frequently works with school groups, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, university groups and local environmental and community organizations to promote outdoor education and “to improve access to the park and to enhance and restore its natural features” — and all that builds the health of the human community as much as the natural. A recent collaboration that the Friends are especially proud of is the Team Red Shamrock Trail Challenge, a 6K race through the park in support of the Red Shamrock Foundation, an Iowa City-based nonprofit that supports childhood cancer survivors and their families as well as post-cancer research in Iowa.

Hickory Hill Park, 2019 — Ashley Shields

FHHP’s biggest collaboration, of course, remains with the City of Iowa City, a partnership that has been crucial to the existence of the park as we know it today. Although our fair city is generous with its public services and amenities, we know that budget constraints are always an issue. The Friends fill in significant gaps, through many volunteer hours of conservation and park upkeep (trail maintenance, etc.) as well as by hiring environmental contractors for such things as invasive species management.

In the past year, the Friends have returned to their advocacy roots to protect and expand the park once again. When it was announced that ACT-owned land owned contiguous to the park at the northeast was to be privately developed with a senior care facility and private homes, FHHP went to work. The organization maintained that the proposed development did not conform to the city’s Northeast District Plan and Comprehensive Plan and that the residential development violated that plan by being too close to the park itself. FHHP mobilized its members and the general public to engage with the Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council, and three revisions to the original proposal ensued.

As the Friends insisted throughout the months-long process and as FHHP vice president Jason Napoli told the Gazette, “We were never anti-development for the residential section. We wanted the residential section of the development to be done responsibly and in line with the Northeast District Plan.”

The fourth and current proposal removes the residential homes, keeps the senior care center and dedicates over 40 acres to be added to the park. Hickory Hill has nearly doubled in size from its original 98 acres when the park was created in 1965 to its current 185 acres, and if the current proposal is finalized, the park will increase in size by more than 20 percent. That’s a win for everyone, and we have the advocacy and leadership of Friends of Hickory Hill Park to thank for it.

Looking ahead, aside from its regular activities, FHHP is aiming to increase its fundraising. You may be familiar with the organization’s popular annual plant sale and FHHP calendar, which will continue, but the board is looking to expand its repertoire of items with T-shirts and more — so keep an eye out for new FHHP gear. Partnerships are always of interest, and the group is also brainstorming new collaborations with local businesses and organizations. Of course, individual monetary donations are critical, whether it’s a $25 annual membership in the Friends organization or a donation of any size.

Friends is an all-volunteer organization, so your time and talent are just as important as your treasure. Keep an eye on the group’s website to sign up for park workdays if you like to get your hands dirty or for more administrative activities such as helping with mailings. And if leadership is in your wheelhouse, FHHP is always on the lookout for enthusiastic board members. The current board boasts a variety of needed talents, and whatever you can bring to FHHP will be more than welcome. And as Friends treasurer Laura Goddard told me, even if you just want to share your concerns, ideas or experiences regarding the park, the board always appreciates hearing from you. After all, that’s at the core of the group’s mission — “promoting a healthy relationship between people and the natural world.”

In his foreword to his seminal A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold said, “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.” In the Friends of Hickory Hill Park, Iowa City is fortunate to have a group of dedicated citizens who have had — and continue to have — the foresight and fortitude to make sure our community continues to enjoy a remarkable place that remains natural, wild and free.

Thomas Dean is a friend of Hickory Hill Park. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 300

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