On May 1, Joe McGovern became the third president in the 34-year history of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. He succeeded Mark Ackelson, who held the position for 18 years. McGovern has worked for the nonprofit conservation organization since 1999, when he was hired to launch its land stewardship program. Prior to that, he worked as a biologist for the Story County Conservation Board.


Different organizations have different definitions of land stewardship. What does it mean for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation?

That program has grown tremendously. We’ve gone from one stewardship person, me, to three or four, plus 10 to 12 interns every summer. Land stewardship really covers the whole spectrum for us. We do conservation easements; a lot of land trusts just view stewardship as taking care of easements. We also do ecological restorations, so we’re managing virgin prairies, oak savannas and doing prairie reconstruction, working with private landowners to do those things, but we also have lands that were donated to us as farms.


Do you do farm management?

We do. Usually what we’ll do is assess the situation and increase the conservation in every case. No matter what happens when the farm comes to us, we will improve the conservation, whether it’s taking some land out of production, or repairing the waterways or the terraces, things like that. … It really depends on the donor’s wishes. We’ve had some where the donor has said, “I want the land to be farmed and I want the income to be sustaining to you.” … We’ll do things like put filter strips in, windbreaks, that’s what we’ll do first.


How much unplowed land is there in the state?

The number usually is one-tenth of 1 percent of the original prairie, or about 30,000 acres. It might be as high as 1 percent. Even some of the pastures were plowed back in the 1930s. However, we are seeing some of those pastures recover.


What are some of the challenges to preserving land in a state that places a premium on production agriculture?

We are seeing a lot of conversion of land that the great-grandfather never wanted to farm, the grandpa never wanted to farm, the dad never wanted it to be farmed. But with commodity prices what they are, the incentive to row crop that land is there. Our approach is that landowners have to make these decisions. We’re clearly trying to move conservation forward. In Iowa, we’re at 2 percent public land. We know it is going to take the private landowners to change that. But on a daily basis, we see private landowners step up; we see them do the right thing for conservation. It would be easy to take a drive around and see all of the bad, and there’s plenty to see. It’s going to take a 100 percent buy-in to change that. We might take a step back; we might take two steps forward. That’s where you have to take the long view. When commodities were down, conservation was up. We recognize now that we should have done more permanent conservation in those days. But with commodities high, there is not a lot of interest in (the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program), which is where we still see a lot of landowners doing the right thing. We recently saw one landowner get a permanent easement on his 240 acres, taken out of production, for his grasses and wildflowers. And that was in good ground.


If you know of a fragile piece of land, do you seek out the landowner?

We are proactively looking for properties. If we know of virgin prairie or a trail corridor opportunity, we do our best to take advantage of that. We are very busy. One of our challenges is to get to all of it. We need to do more; we know that. That is part of our opportunity for growth. We don’t wait around for something to come over the transom. It doesn’t always produce the results you want right away, but I’ve had people who after working with them for 10 or 15 or 20 years have made the choice for conservation. It’s a big decision. We help people do conservation. We don’t do it for them, and we don’t talk them into it. It’s the same way with trails. Communities have to buy into trails. The High Trestle Trail wouldn’t have worked if the community hadn’t bought into it.


What triggered your passion for conservation?

I knew when I was in kindergarten. I’ve been a hunter, fisherman, outdoor person all my life. There’s never been any question where my heart was. It just bites you. I was always playing in creeks. What really got me back is that when I picked another path, it didn’t do it for me. When I started at Story County, I was running a mower. But it was just anything to get me in, sign me up, I’ll carry the hammer.