Saturday, March 01, 2014

What's in a name: Stephens State Forest

Lucas County is home to lots of enthusiastic bird watchers, but I'd bet few if any realize that thousands of the wooded acres that surround them are a living memorial to one of the upper Midwest's most highly regarded ornithologists, Dr. Thomas Calderwood Stephens (left).

The memorial is Stephens State Forest, now totaling more than 15,000 acres, a majority in Lucas County. The forest was named for Dr. Stephens by the Iowa Conservation Commission during the spring of 1950 (he had died on Nov. 24, 1948, in Sioux City, where he had served as instructor, professor of biology and department head at Morningside College since 1906).

Stephens was a Michigan native who earned an M.D. degree from the University of Kansas College of Physicians and Surgeons, Kansas City --- but didn't especially care for medicine. He went on to advanced studies in zoology and botany and, during 1906, joined the Morningside staff.

During his career at Morningside, he became a leading advocate for Iowa wildlife, a tireless chronicler of the birds of the upper Midwest and a respected mentor for thousands of students and adults who shared his interest in the outdoors and its creatures.

Dr. Stephens' cremated remains were scattered near a dedicatory sign in the Lucas Unit after the naming honor had been accorded. The ashes of his widow, Elinor Reid Stephens, were placed in the Lucas Unit during late October, 1965. She had died on May 26, 1965, in Stamford, Connecticut.

So next time you're out in the woods and hear birdsong or spook a wild turkey, think of Thomas and Elinor Stephens --- she was an enthusiastic birder, too.


The forest itself dates to the 1930s and a plan by the U.S. Forest Service to establish woodland reserves in southern Iowa. Surveys and appraisals were undertaken in Lucas County and elsewhere, but federal funds were not forthcoming. As a result, the state of Iowa stepped in and purchased several of the areas and established a new state forest.

Land purchases commenced during 1936 and by June of 1937, when a Civilian Conservation Corps forestry camp was established at Chariton, state holdings in the county totaled 2,700 acres. 

Acreage has since expanded to more than 15,000 acres, divided into seven units. The adjoining Whitebreast Unit (3,517 acres) and the Lucas Unit (1,267 acres) rise above the south bank of Whitebreast creek southwest of Lucas. The Woodburn Unit (2,098 acres), which joins the Whitebreast Unit, is located entirely in Clarke County. These areas are developed for hiking, camping and other outdoor pursuits.

The Cedar Creek Unit (1,937 acres), the Chariton Unit (1,503 acres) and the Thousand Acres Unit (2,376 acres) rise into hills along the south bank of Cedar Creek in northeast Lucas County. Thousand Acres spills over into Monroe County. While these all are public areas, they are undeveloped. The Unionville Unit (2,430 acres in scattered tracts) is located in Appanoose and Davis counties.

Stephens State Forest is administered from headquarters in Chariton. You can read more and find maps at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Web site, located here. Some of the historical data isn't exactly accurate, but the maps are great.


Here's an article from The Chariton Herald-Patriot of May 25, 1939, written as work on the forest units was advancing, that provides more background. The writer was Donald Norberg, then a Herald-Patriot reporter, later on a power in Iowa Democratic Party politics.

Lucas county's back yard is filled with beauty spots that rival highly-publicized vacation lands.

They're located throughout the approximately 2,700 acres of state forest tracts and are being rapidly improved and made accessible by the United States Forest Service and Civilian Conservation Corps.

The Forest Service plans and directs the development, which includes road construction, tree planting, creation of upland reservoirs, construction of game covers, planting of game food, fencing and erosion control.

The CCC does the work.

Results of this work already are evident. Another year will see its completion, so far as the present tracts and the need of a full CCC crew are concerned.

There are four tracts of state-owned forest land in Lucas County --- Brown-Herrick (now, in 2014, called the Chariton Unit; named originally for Margaret Brown Herrick, from whom much of the tract was purchased), Whitebreast, Lucas and Thousand Acres.

The Brown-Herrick tract, including 939 acres, is located in Pleasant township. All phases of the development program have been completed or are in progress there. First was timber stand improvement, which consists of removing dead or unnecessary trees and giving good trees the best possible chance of survival. Four upland reservoirs have been constructed. Located at the heads of green, cool valleys, they not only provide beauty by mirroring the tall trees, but also help stop erosion and at the same time provide water for birds and game during periods when small streams are dry. It is not uncommon to find the footprints of many varieties of animals and birds on their shores.

Grain planted in various patches throughout the area helped birds survive the winter and because of the cover that has been provided the area is heavily populated with quail.

Erosion control, which includes dams in gullies and black locust plantings, already is beginning to make unsightly gashes in the hills invisible.

Roads which will enable motorists to penetrate the tract are under construction and it is hoped to provide picnic tables and other facilities in some of the more scenic valleys.

North and east of the Brown-Herrick tract is the Thousand Acres. Most of this land was purchased from John H. Curtis, Chariton broom manufacturer. It covers approximately 950 acres, of which 170 acres are in Pleasant township of Lucas county and the balance in Monroe. Development work there has included timber stand improvement, erosion control, fencing, game food patches and quail shelters.

The Whitebreast tract, in Union and Jackson townships, covers 840 acres. In one of its valleys is a giant elm tree at least 200 years old. A tributary of Whitebreast creek flows near this tree and it is partially fed by a natural spring that is active the year around. Over this stream a rustic bridge has been constructed. The bridge will be part of an auto trail through the area. CCC youths were constructing fence in the tract Wednesday. Additional road work is to start in two weeks. Besides projects similar to those of the other areas, work in the Whitebreast has included sowing of range vegetation. Approximately 90 acres of land which had been robbed of fertility through planting of crops and erosion now is covered with rye and bluegrass. Eventually it will be pasture land.

Not far from the Whitebreast tract is the Lucas area of 800 acres, all in Jackson township. Road building also is in progress there, while timber stand improvement, erosion control, tree planting and planting of food and construction of shelters for game already has been accomplshed. On the proposed program for the Lucas land is construction of a small lake which will be stocked with catfish and also will serve as a stopping place for ducks. All that will be necessary to create the lake is to move shale left by an abandoned mine for construciton of a dam. 

Most tree planting has been on land taken out of cultivation. An idea of the extent of such land from which farmers attempted in vain to grow a profit is gained from the fact that nearly 210,000 trees have been planted on it --- 109,500 in the Brown-Herrick tract, 59,000 in the Lucas tract and 41,000 in the Whitebreast tract --- this year.

Varieties planted include Black Walnut, Jack Pine, Red Pine, Green Ash, White Pine, Red Cedar, Virginia Pine, Osage Orange, Black Locust, Cottonwood, Elm, Hackberry and Hickory.

Fence construction has provded benefit to farmers living around the areas. Before it was purchased by the state, most of the forest land was owned by absentee landlords who weren't interested in paying out money for fence on land that brought little or no income. As a result the neighboring farmer who wished to keep his livestock out of these areas had to carry the entire expense burden himself or suffer the consequences. Now the Forest Service makes agreements with neighboring farm owners under which the state shares half the expense of fencing materials and provides construction labor.

Not all of the forest land is useless so far as agriculture is concerned. Some of it, particularly in the Brown-Herrick tract, has been leased for farming and grazing. The state also, in time, will realize income from the sale of timber. But the timber will not be removed haphazardly and will be replaced with new plantings.

In the not too distant future picturesque scenery, much of it like that of the day the Indian lived in this section, will be enjoyed by Lucas county residents after a short automobile drive.

And it is not unreasonable to predict that tourists no longer will stop in Lucas county just for meals and gasoline. They'll extend their visits in order to inspect forest areas located in the heart of an agricultural center.

Note: The photos here were taken in the Cedar Creek Unit during October of 2011.

1 comment:

Mary Ellen said...

Great background to know! My mother had Stephen relatives, some still live around Ainsworth. I often wondered if we were related to the Stephen's Forest name. After reading this, not so sure but still most interesting. We are so fortunate to have this in a back yards.