THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE FOR ALUMNI AND FRIENDS VOLUME XXII NUMBER 3 FALL 2007
  
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Saving Iowa’s Yellow Mud Turtles

Saving Iowa’s Yellow Mud Turtles
Joe Bannon ’87 keeps the Iowa sand prairies healthy.

Yellow Mud Turtle photo courtesy of Joe Bannon

Every three years Joe Bannon '87 gets to show off a little during a public field day at Big Sand Mound nature preserve in Muscatine, Iowa. He gets to teach people about the remedial sand prairie at Big Sand Mound, which is normally off limits to the public, by talking about everything from nature photography to the endangered yellow mud turtles that make their home there. Bannon's work as the manager of environmental training, performance, and support for MidAmerican Energy helps to ensure that the prairie remains a vibrant and protected part of Iowa's natural heritage.

Bannon's work in environmental sciences is, for him, as much about the specific plants, animals, and geography of an area as it is about how everything works together.

When he started working for MidAmerican six years ago, he didn't have anything to do with the preservation of Big Sand Mound. A personnel change put him at the head of the company's efforts. It's the best "accidental assignment" he's ever received, he said.

Bannon received a bachelor's degree in geology from Keene State in 1987 so he could become a high school science teacher. After graduation he went to the University of Illinois for a graduate degree in broadcast journalism. There he met his wife, Marcia, who was working toward her bachelor's degree in the same field. Marcia had a difficult time finding work after graduating, and her experience made Bannon rethink his direction. He decided to use his Keene State degree to find work as an environmental consultant.

Joe Bannon photo by Feister-Stag
Joe Bannon '87
Bannon's work in environmental sciences is, for him, as much about the specific plants, animals, and geography of an area as it is about how everything works together. In some ways, the ecology of Big Sand Mound is the embodiment of compromise. "There are so many different habitats in such close proximity to one another, and each has its own unique features, flora, and fauna … yet it all comes together. That's truly amazing," he said.

In his position as manager, Bannon works with a variety of people who have a variety of opinions, but who are all focused on preserving Big Sand Mound. His role with MidAmerican focuses on the Louisa Generating Station, a coal-fired plant located near the 510-acre preserve, and its impact on the environment. He works with the Louisa Ecological Advisory Committee (LEAC) and scientists who are studying the prairie. And he works with local Boy Scout troops to schedule skill-building activities such as cutting down red cedars, an invasive tree species, or setting drift nets for yellow mud turtle studies.

A recent preservation concern at Big Sand Mound is the water levels in Spring Lake and the surrounding wetlands. Aerial photos from 2004 show a dry lake bed, so Bannon explored options to reintroduce water from the Mississippi River into the area. Only a few weeks after opening the valve in April, almost the entire lake had filled. "We've got our fingers crossed that the water will be retained, but this will help restore the aquatic and wetland areas that were drying up," he said.

Joe Bannon meets with a local scout troop near Big Sand Mound in Iowa.
It may sound kind of funny to talk about water levels in a sand prairie, but restoring the water levels should benefit the yellow mud turtles. The turtles, listed as an endangered species in Iowa, are a cause that the public, scientists, and MidAmerican can get behind, according to Bannon. The baby turtles, which are born in September, emerge from their nests in late May to feed and mate. Restoring water to the lake will provide areas of deep water where turtles can hide from the raccoons that like to eat them.

Just because everyone can agree that the turtles are necessary to protect doesn't mean that everyone is going to agree about how to get the job done. Finding common ground is a big part of Bannon's job.

His experiences at Keene State helped him learn how to bring a group of people together for one cause. Bannon was the general manager of the campus radio station WKNH for a while … and he called it an exercise in "trying to keep the herd together" because everyone had a different opinion about how things should get done. Without help, according to Bannon, people trying to achieve a common goal can find that their efforts grow stagnant if they can't agree on how to move forward.

Instituting an annual prescribed burn at Big Sand Mound was just such a goal for the members of LEAC. They had scheduled a few intermittent burns before Bannon started working as the environmental manager at MidAmerican, but they needed a plan to get the full benefits of the land management practice. A prescribed burn is a controlled fire that is allowed to burn down vegetation in order to promote new growth and get rid of old or dead plant matter. Some plant species are triggered to release seeds when there is a fire. Prescribed burns also help to control invasive tree species, making room for the native grasses of the prairie to grow.

Bannon decided to get the ball rolling and, after some research, arrived at the next LEAC meeting prepared with information that the committee could use for Big Sand Mound. The annual burns have become a first priority for the prairie, and native plant species have made a strong return to the land.

Annual prescribed burns are just one success that Bannon has achieved for Big Sand Mound, with the help of LEAC, the help of the local Boy Scout troops, and the commitment from MidAmerican Energy. He's humble about his role in the preservation efforts, but takes it to heart that he is helping to keep the prairie healthy for everyone to enjoy.