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Stephens State Forest - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 94

Spreading across the five southern Iowa counties of Clarke, Lucas, Monroe, Appanoose, and Davis, the five-unit, 15,500-acre Stephens State Forest holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Stephens State Forest.


Iowa’s largest state forest in the modern era, seven units make up the massive forest spreading across the heart of southern Iowa. Clarke and Lucas Counties host the largest, and mostly contiguous section made up of the Woodburn, Whitebreast, and Lucas Units. Lucas and Monroe counties hold the Cedar Creek, Chariton, and Thousand Acres units, while Appanoose and Davis counties host the eleven-part Unionville unit. Spread across the river valleys of Whitebreast Creek, North Cedar Creek, and Soap Creek, the landscape stands as representative of the rolling hills characteristic of the southern Iowa drift plain. The forests themselves feature uplands swathed in oak and hickory, while the hardwoods bottomlands feature elm, cottonwood, silver maple, black walnut, and hackberry.


In 1934, the Iowa General Assembly allotted $1,000,000 for the purchase of 12,000 acres of marginal lands unsuitable for farming in southeastern and northeastern Iowa. The first state purchases occurred in 1936 with the acquisition of tax delinquent lands. Additionally, the U.S. Forest Service bought 6,400 acres as a part of a plan aimed at creating what officials dubbed the Hawkeye National Forest. The proposal planned a forest including over 800,000 of acres of lands stretching across 13 counties. In 1935, the state planning board considered a broader proposal which would have expanded the Hawkeye State Forest to a mix of state and federal public lands covering 900,000 acres in 24 Iowa counties. However, as agricultural land prices started to recover from historic Great Depression lows and the onset of World War II demanded federal attention the plan quietly fell apart before coming to fruition. A portion of the lands initially acquired for the ambitious plan found their way into today’s Stephens State Forest during 1960, while more easterly portions also entered the Iowa public lands system as a part of the Shimek State Forest.


During the 1930s, the tracts saw development with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps. New Deal workers arrived and added to the diversity of tree species throughout the units by planting pine, spruce, and other species. During the earliest years of the forest’s existence, the state officially referred to the parcels as the Lucas-Monroe Forest. However, during 1951, the Iowa Conservation Commission officially renamed the forest to honor longtime Morningside College Professor T.C. Stephens. A critical figure in the early development of public lands and conservation in Iowa, Stephens fundamental work on the 1917 Turner Quail Bill and understanding of Iowa’s ornithology led the state to honor him with the renaming of the sprawling southern Iowa forest.





Starting in the early 1960s, the forest served as a test site for stocking efforts related to game birds. A 1963 project focused on releasing Reeves pheasants in the forest. During the winter of 1965-1966 the state sought to reintroduce wild turkeys to Iowa with a plan centered on the southern Iowa state forest parcels. The state released 3 toms and 8 hens captured in Missouri, and the birds successfully reestablished to form communities as large as 50 birds by the early 1970s. In the mid-1980s, calls for a revitalization of the previously abandoned “Hawkeye National Forest” plan reverberated, but the plan again faded into obscurity without meaningful action. Despite the plans failure, the state forest continued to grow and provide a backdrop for recreation and education throughout the late 20th century.


During 2008, the area officially gained designation as a Bird Conservation Area, a designation which would undoubtedly meet with hearty approval from T.C. Stephens.


Today, Stephens State Forest offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in southern Iowa.  Hikers and equestrian enthusiasts alike enjoy dozens of miles of trails spreading out across the hills of southern Iowa. Three equestrian campgrounds await riders and their mounts within the Whitebreast Unit. Additional traditional camping facilities located in Whitebreast and Lucas units pair with five pack-in sites in the Woodburn Unit to offer a variety of options for those hoping to escape into nature. Stocked fishing ponds in the Whitebreast and Lucas units offer angles an opportunity to test the waters for a variety of fish species. Hunting, a popular pastime throughout all of the units, pairs with quality wildlife viewing opportunities for those set on tracking down Iowa’s wildlife.


Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Stephens State Forest. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Stephens State Forest shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.


Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Stephens State Forest.


Make sure to subscribe to the Notes on Iowa website, subscribe on YouTube, follow on social media, and tune in each Sunday to explore the history of Iowa’s state parks, preserves, and other public lands.


I hope I’ll see you out there!


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