Located near Fort Dodge in Webster County, Iowa’s largest state held public lands parcel spreads over a 6,000-acre+ state recreation area holding natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Brushy Creek State Recreation Area.
The landscape deeply cut by Brushy Creek holds deep ties into Iowa’s Indigenous and archeological past. A bison kill site in distant history, archeologists identified dozens of significant Indigenous sites in the area during the 20th century. In 1887, the Webster City Freeman reported the formation of a new town of Brushy on a scenic bend flanked with native timber on a scenic bend of the creek. Over the era of American settlement, agricultural development paired with retained patches of native hardwood forests and remnant prairies in the area.
While the Iowa Conservation Commission developed nearby sites including Dolliver Memorial State Park and Woodman Hollow State Preserve during the early 1900s, Brushy Creek remained under private control. When an Iowa Conservation Commission initiative to create more lake-based outdoor opportunities of Iowans in the late 1960s identified Brushy Creek as a potential site for damming and creation of 1,000 acre reservoir, a fierce battle ensued. Approved in 1967, the state project slowly acquired 4,200 acres at a cost of $2.6 million by 1975 despite opposition from local landowners with only six of thirty-one agreeing to the state’s initial offer.
In 1971, the state condemned sixteen properties from holdouts. As parcels came under control the state opened the area to recreation to quickly become a favorite equestrian, hiking, biking, and hunting site for area people and the state dedicated the area as a state park. Initial developments included trail work, habitat management, and creation of campgrounds. Paired with environmental and archeological concerns, the non-lake based recreation success of the site and state funding struggles led to opposition of damming the creek to create a lake as originally intended. Over two decades the project stalled, and contentious local debates led to a 1982 study environmental study aimed at better understanding how to move forward.
A 1986 plan sought to provide compromise, and detailed a future for the site featuring a 690-acre lake while also creating a 260 state perverse to protect archeological and biologically significant sites. The state also purchased additional lands to offset the loss of popular trails doomed by the dam project. Local opposition and support mixed with outside influence from national lobbyists and environmental groups. Area newspapers spanning the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s continuously include insights into the bitter debates surrounding plans for Brushy Creek. Locals opposing the continued development of the site held “Brushyfest” in 1987 to help raise funds and awareness. As a plan started with the Iowa Conversation Commission in the 1960s found support from the newly created Iowa Department of Natural Resources in the late 1980s, the state’s commitment to the lake project held steadfast. A 1989 effort in the Iowa legislature to abandon the dam construction plans failed, but the battle headed to federal court. The next decade, during 1993, a federal judge ruled in favor of the project while oppositional groups struggled to continue to raise funds to oppose the project. In 1995, construction started on a 2,000 foot long, 700 foot tall earthwork and spillway dam costing $7.1 million. Workers completed the project in 1998, and Iowa’s deepest man-made permanent pool lake slowly saturated the site.
Officially rededicated as Brushy Creek State Recreation Area, the bitterly disputed area reopened to the public. The compromises included in the state’s development represent a management plan hoping to placate a variety of recreational, archeological, and environmental interests. Largescale development worked to enhance amenities while incorporating local support through the founding of the Friends of Brushy Creek group.
Today, Brushy Creek State Recreation Area offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in north-central Iowa. 45-miles of trails await equestrian enthusiasts, hikers, and bikers. Two equestrian campgrounds pair with a modern non-equestrian campground for those hoping to spend the night. Featuring four boat ramps, numerous jetties, and over 21 miles of shoreline, the recreation area welcomes Iowa’s eager anglers. With two gun shooting ranges and plenty of habitat open to hunting, the recreation area represents one of Iowa’s most popular hunting destinations. Shelters and picnic areas provide good options for those hoping to enjoy an afternoon. The habitats and archeological sites protected by the state preserve still offer insights into Iowa’s past. Crowds also flock to the popular swimming beach during Iowa’s hot summer months.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Brushy Creek State Recreation Area. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Brushy Creek State Recreation Area shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.
Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Brushy Creek State Recreation Area.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!