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Washington County Wet and Wild Because of Haeffner

Conservation Showcase



By Jason Johnson, Public Affairs SpecialistOne of the benefits of wetlands is biodiversity protection. Wetlands support a variety of species, and many of the species are unique and rare. Haeffner identifies some native plants at a CRP wetland near Wayland, Iowa.

Leroy Haeffner retired June 29 after serving the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for 27 years, the last 16 as a soil conservationist in Washington County. If you don't think one person can dramatically alter a landscape, drive around this area of southeast Iowa. Instead of field after field of row crops, you will see an inordinate amount of wildlife habitat, including wetlands, buffers, native prairie plants and grasses, and trees.

Much of that can be attributed to Haeffner, who has promoted the restoration of wetlands and native prairie throughout his NRCS career; all to improve the soil and attract wildlife to the region.

Bruce Trautman, Iowa NRCS Assistant State Conservationist for Field Operations, says Haeffner has left his signature on the landscape of Washington County and all of southeast Iowa. "Leroy is a dedicated conservationist and his passion for wetlands can be witnessed driving around the county, seeing the many wetland projects he's responsible for," he said.

Washington County Leads Iowa in CRP Wetlands

Haeffner's passion for wetlands and conservation message has undoubtedly gotten through to area producers. Since 1992, 3,557 acres of wetlands have been restored through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in Washington County, which is 1,279 more acres more than any other county in Iowa.

The CRP is a voluntary program for agricultural landowners where producers receive rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource conserving covers on eligible farmland. Participants enroll in CRP contracts for 10 to 15 years.

Since 1992, Washington County ranks 18th in the state for wetland projects funded through the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). The WRP has funded the purchase of 16 easements and agreements (contracts) in Washington County for a total of 2,285 acres in the last 15 years. Another five WRP applications and 12 Emergency Wetland Program applications are on a waiting list, pending adequate funding.

The WRP is a voluntary program that offers payments, based on the agricultural value, for restored wetlands that have previously been drained and converted to agricultural uses. It pays up to 100 percent for restoration costs and allows landowners to maintain ownership of the land and control access to the property.

How did Haeffner convince so many producers to take land out of row crop and into wetlands? He went with producers out to the field following heavy rains. "When I showed them the effects of heavy rains on their cropland, many were ready to do something different," he said. "What they were doing wasn't working, and was not making money for them. I gave them another option. For some it was about money, but some had other values, such as wildlife for hunting or protecting rare plants."

Leopold's Influence

Haeffner (right) talks with Caryl Leopold Smith and son, Nelson, about the 102-acre WRP wetland he helped design.Haeffner considers Aldo Leopold, conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator and writer, who many believe to be the father of wildlife management, an influence on his career. Coincidentally, Leopold's niece, Caryl Leopold Smith, resides in Washington County, near Brighton, Iowa. Smith, along with one of her four sons, Nelson Smith, worked with Haeffner to install a 102-acre wetland through the WRP along the Skunk River bottoms.

"Leroy spent a lot of time back and forth along the (Skunk River) bottoms getting the lay of the land, deciding how the water was going to be retained," said Nelson Smith. "The wetland is our water filter. People have to understand it's the same water we're using over and over, so if we don't filter it and keep it clean, we're going to have to drink all the stuff we've been putting into it."

Haeffner also worked with the Smiths to place 55 acres into CRP and riparian buffers, including dry basins and water retention basins.

In his final visit to the Smiths before he retired, Caryl Leopold Smith presented Haeffner with Aldo Leopold's collection of essays, A Sand County Almanac. "It's one of the nicest things anyone has ever given me," Haeffner said.

Caryl Leopold Smith says she'll miss Haeffner. "He's been a real neat guy to work with," she said. "He's been easy to get along with. We're going to miss him. I love him."

Haeffner and his wife plan to move to the Quad Cities, where his two daughters' families live. "We have five grandchildren there that we want to see more of," he said. Haeffner also has a son who lives in Cedar Rapids.


Benefits of Wetland 

Restoring degraded wetlands to their natural state is essential to ensure the health of America's watersheds. Restoring wetlands involves returning wetlands to their naturally functioning condition. Wetlands provide an abundance of benefits to the environment, society and the landowner. Some advantages of restored wetlands:

  • Provide wildlife habitat - many species of waterfowl, birds and other wildlife depend on wetland habitat for breeding, nesting and feeding.
  • Supply water and prevent floods - wetlands are reservoirs for rainwater and runoff. They reduce peak water flow after storms, and recharge ground water supplies as they release water into the ground.
  • Improve water quality - wetlands provide natural pollution control by removing excess agricultural chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers from surface waters. They may also be an important part of an efficient alternative for human and animal waste treatment.
  • Reduce sediment delivery - by slowing the overland flow of water, wetlands reduce soil erosion along water courses. Wetlands filter and collect sediment from runoff water, helping reduce sedimentation in lakes and reservoirs.
  • Biodiversity protection - wetlands support a diversity of species and many of the species are unique and rare. Among the vast diversity are many plant species used for food, drugs, and other commodities.
  • Recreation - wetlands provide excellent hunting, trapping, bird watching, canoeing, and other recreation opportunities. The can be one of the most beautiful features of any landscape.
  • Economics - farming frequently flooded and saturated or poorly drained areas can be expensive; the best economic choice may be to set aside a wet area as a wetland.
  • Generate farm income - several programs offer financial incentives for restoring wetlands. The wetland may also be leased to hunters.


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