Dorchester, Iowa — Unlike the relatively flat landscape surrounding it, the Driftless Area is filled with limestone bluffs and lush valleys. The last continental glacier bypassed this chunk of land that extends through parts of southeastern Minnesota into Wisconsin, Illinois and northeast Iowa.
It's a distinctive environment that's a haven for oaks and cedar trees, rattle snakes and coyotes. It's also a haven for trout.
"There's over 2,000 miles of trout stream in just this area here. It's really equivalent to Pennsylvania and to the chalk streams of England. There's just no other place in the world like this and so few people understand that or realize it," says Michael Osterholm, a well-known disease expert from Minnesota.
Osterholm is most often associated with grim warnings about smallpox and other bio-terrorism threats. But his science background also is useful when it comes to his other passion. He's an avid fly fisherman.
Two years ago he bought land along an idyllic northeast Iowa stream -- Waterloo Creek. It's a spring-fed stream that's full of trout. It's also full of silt from eroding stream banks. Osterholm could have shored up the banks with some rock and left it at that. Instead, he decided to tackle what he calls his "legacy project." He wants to return all 98 acres of land to its pre-settlement condition.
Driving along the edge of his property on a recent spring day, Osterholm's car kicks up a long trail of dust. As he rounds a curve in the gravel road, a field filled with corn stubble comes into view. Behind it, flows the stream along the edge of a steep oak-covered hillside.
"This is the property line where that green sign is," he points out. "So everything on that side of the hill, across all that hilltop across, was burned. This is cosmetic surgery. If it were going to be like this, it would be a tragedy. But it's going to be very different in the not too distant future."
Osterholm's land is scarred by fire. Recently a team of restoration workers deliberately burned all of the weeds and brush along his creek. They also got rid of trees with shallow, destructive roots that were cutting in to the fragile banks. In their place, they'll plant native prairie grasses that will stabilize the stream walls by burrowing 20 to 30 feet into the ground.
The team also burned the wooded hillside to clear out underbrush that was competing with a stand of 100-year-old oak trees. Osterholm says oak savannahs once co-existed with the native grasses, but both need fire to survive.
"That's what fire does. It creates woodlands that are still thick woodlands but with beautiful flowers and grasses as opposed to bare, desolate looking leaf litter. The prairie's the same way. If you don't burn a prairie over time it will secede back to almost weed-like trees," he says.
In addition to stabilizing eroding banks, prairies are important to trout streams because they invite lots of insects. The more bugs flying and crawling around, the better chance fish will have food falling in their streams.
Before the recent fire and landscape work, Osterholm's property wasn't very attractive to insects. A butterfly survey conducted by researchers at nearby Luther College turned up just ten species, when there should have been at least 20 or 30.
"That's just one group of insects," says biologist Kirk Larsen, who participated in the survey. "My specialty is ground beetles. Probably we have about 15 species out there right now. And, over time I expect that to increase at least 30 species, maybe even get up to 50 or 60 species."
With this project, Osterholm is attempting to undo years of damage caused by farming. Some of the work is obvious and relatively easy. He's already taken the corn field out of production and will return it to prairie. But that field also poses his biggest challenge in restoring this property to its original state.
Years ago, another spring-fed stream wound its way across the valley. When farmers moved in, the stream was diverted into a ditch to make way for the field. In looking at aerial photos from the 1940s, Osterholm discovered a faint outline of the spring's original path. Now he wants to put it back.
"It's going to be artwork. It's trying to find the old stream bottom and meandering it just like it was," he says.
To do it right, he knew he needed help. Osterholm turned to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The federal agency has programs and money to help landowners restore property damaged by farming.
On this afternoon, NRCS Technician Mike Henderson stands at the edge of the old cornfield. He turns on a global positioning satellite device and takes some readings as Osterholm looks on.
All that's needed now is a massive earth mover to rip open the field and return the spring to it's original path.
To most people this probably seems like a lot of fuss over a tiny bit of water. But Osterholm has big plans for this stream. He wants to re-establish brook trout in it. Brookies are native to northeastern Iowa and there are very few naturally reproducing fish left. The trout are extremely sensitive to muddy streams and fluctuating water temperatures.
Osterholm thinks they may do well in his spring if he can get it flowing properly again. The water comes straight out of a huge limestone bluff which stabilizes the temperature.
"The springs are constantly seeping in at 50 degrees and that's why oftentimes you'll come down here and the stream will be totally open in the middle of the winter when other rivers will be frozen over because the spring water keeps it warmer," Osterholm says.
The Iowa DNR has already offered to stock Osterholm's spring with fingerling brookies taken from South Pine Creek about nine miles away. The fish were discovered a few years ago in one of the stream's remote pools. DNA testing confirmed that they are wild fish, native to northeast Iowa.
Trout biologist Bill Kalishek says the trout have been moved to several new streams and they've naturally reproduced in four of them so far.
"The remeandered stream here on Mike's property will be one of those streams also. We're gonna be stocking that with some of those heritage strain South Pine Creek brook trout to try to get another population established."
Kalishek says the DNR is encouraged by Osterholm's project and hopes it will inspire others.
"Mike's one of the few landowners we've worked with that is really looking at the big picture. He's looking at his entire property and really trying to figure out what impact all of that will have eventually on the stream and the trout population," he says.
Trout Unlimited is also watching the project closely. Recently the national organization gave the local T.U. chapter $10,000 to help repair the stream. It was one of only two fully-funded projects in the nation.
Osterholm is also receiving some government grants. Still, he will have to kick in a good share of his own money. The entire project is expected to cost well over $100,000.
"In part what we're doing here is an experiment. This is not going to be a project that I would urge others to begin to embark upon because we're going to learn things here about how to do it better, how to do it more cheaply. It's going to be an expensive proposition. It's one that however I think in the end a model that I think will save a lot of others both time and money."
Occasionally Osterholm fantasizes about turning his property and other sections of the Driftless Area into a national park one day. He thinks it's special enough to deserve the designation. But he's also content knowing that at the very least, he's preserving what he can of a unique Driftless Area prairie and trout stream.