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University of Dubuque purchases land for education, resource center

University’s partnership with the property’s previous owners goes back to a flying squirrel

by Stacey Ortman, University Relations | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The University of Dubuque plans to make use of the recent purchase of 121 acres about 25 minutes from campus as an education and research center. (Photo by Eric Nie Photography)

DUBUQUE, Iowa — The University of Dubuque announced late last year it has purchased 121 acres of unglaciated land in northeast Iowa to be used as an education and research center that will enhance the experiences of generations of students.

The university is also home to the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, an ecumenical seminary of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The institution currently known as the University of Dubuque was founded by the Rev. Adrian Van Vliet, who was pastor of the German Presbyterian Church, now known as the First Presbyterian Church of Dubuque, in 1852 to train ministers to serve the influx of immigrants to the upper Midwest.

Wolter Woods and Prairies is located near Sherrill, Iowa, about 25 minutes from the main campus. Mostly woodlands, the property consists of three-quarters of a mile of land with limestone bluffs that overlook the Mississippi River as well as a river bottom with a spring-fed creek, 20 acres of reintroduced native Iowa prairie, and a sustainable garden. There is also a home on the land.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property that is uniquely located on the river over the bluffs. All the different constituencies that make up the University of Dubuque will benefit by this. It ties into our environmental science program with opportunities for research on site, but it also could be the site of other initiatives such as retreats or wellness programs for students and the wider campus community,” said UD Chairman of the Board of Trustees Joseph Chlapaty. “For the University of Dubuque to acquire this large tract of land that has so many different habitat and animal research opportunities puts us in a unique position.”

The property is home to a variety of mammals including foxes, otters, and minks, over 90 species of birds like the yellow-billed cuckoo, owls, and pileated woodpeckers, three orchid species — yellow lady slipper, showy orchis, and putty root — and the threatened and endangered amethyst shooting star.

“We are grateful that our investors, who wish to remain anonymous, have caught the vision of Wolter Woods and Prairies and, through their gift and vision, have thereby elected to continue the important research and stewardship initiated by Mari and Gary Wolter, which eventuated in a partnership between Professor Gerald Zuercher and his colleagues and the generations of UD students who have invested time, talent, and energy into Wolter Woods and Prairies. I am very proud to be able to say that these students are now serving the church and the world as environmental scientists, researchers, [Department of Natural Resources] officials, and teachers. This natural resource will be a place of study, retreat, friendship-building, and peace for generations and generations to come,” said Jeffrey Bullock, president of the University.

Mari and Gary Wolter, who owned the property, have partnered with UD’s Department of Natural and Applied Sciences for about 10 years on a variety of research projects and educational activities. Recently, the Wolters contacted UD about the possibility of the university becoming stewards of the land.

“It’s been a dream of mine to keep the land together and to keep it managed in the same manner that we have done for the last 15 years. It seems to me that the University of Dubuque was a perfect fit because they know the land and it’s been a great learning opportunity for students,” Mari Wolter said.

Chlapaty said, “The one thing that was touching was the opportunity we as a university have to take under our wing in perpetuity this wonderful property from the Wolters, who worked so hard to turn it into what it is today.”

The Wolters purchased about 38 acres of land in 2005 and stitched together four parcels over the years. It was a labor of love by family, friends, volunteers, and Land Manager Eric Nie to create what is now Wolter Woods and Prairies.

“Mari has been the visionary. Mari has been the heart and soul of this land and what it has become. Mari has been the one who had the vision of making it a sanctuary,” Gary said. “It’s important work.”

UD will continue that work, which aligns with part of its mission of stewardship of all God’s human and natural resources.

“This is a really significant way for us to directly live our mission in a unique, new way. We’re literally going to be living our mission in real time,” said Gerald Zuercher, a professor of vertebrate ecology.

The Wolters’ partnership with UD began with a flying squirrel. One summer evening, Mari saw a flying squirrel on her deck and wanted to learn more about the creature. She learned about Zuercher’s research on flying squirrels and contacted him. They met and the rest, as they say, is history.

“We had various classes coming out to our property and students that were involved in research. It was a very beneficial relationship for all of us. I learned a lot, and my family enjoyed having the students out there.  I think we touched a lot of students’ lives,” Mari Wolter said.

The connection between the Wolters and students is undeniable. Mari Wolter would regularly meet students with lemonade or cookies, and the Wolters have hosted countless students for lasagna dinners.

“She’s always been very invested in everything that we’ve been doing. The students adore her. She gets to know every one of them by name, and they can sense the passion that she has for the property so they really work for it, I think, even harder because they just fall in love with her,” Zuercher said.

Students and faculty have visited the property for multiple research projects including bat, bumblebee, flying squirrel, insect, orchid, small rodent, snake, and soil research. Wolter Woods and Prairies has also been the site for class projects, such as GPS or water testing, as well as service projects conducted by the UD Web of Life and UD Fishing Club.

“It’s been an opportunity for our students for the last decade to get out and get involved either through research or class experiences or the opportunity to get out and serve the community. It’s a great spot. It really is,” Zuercher said.

Hayli Wolf, a senior double majoring in biology and environmental science, and Julia Rodewald, a senior triple majoring in biology, chemistry, and environmental science, are two of the many students who have visited the property for research. They took an inventory of species and vegetation with an emphasis on bumblebees in three prairie areas over the summer to research the effect of a prairie’s age on the species they observed. The student researchers spent multiple days every week on the property before their field season ended, and they began to input data this fall.

“There’s species at the Wolter property that you can’t find anywhere else,” Rodewald said.

Wolf added, “The diversity in habitat type at the Wolter property is very unique in the fact that it has a wide scope. It’s absolutely gorgeous out there. Every time I drive up, I’m always like hashtag life goals.”

Their project is co-funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wolter Family Foundation. Both Wolf and Rodewald said they were grateful to the Wolters for the opportunity to perform research on the land.

“My interaction with Mari has always been very pleasant. She makes the best cookies. When I was doing my Joseph and Linda Chlapaty Summer Research project on snake studies, Mari was always very willing to send me pictures of snakes that she saw in the field. It was nice that she was involved,” Wolf said.

The Wolters will continue to be active on the property for another year while they help transition the stewardship of the land to UD.

“Gary and I want to thank President Bullock, Joe Chlapaty, Professor Zuercher, and Mark Ward (vice president for academic affairs) for their vision to incorporate Wolter Woods and Prairies as part of the University of Dubuque,” Mari Wolter said. “Our whole family is pretty thrilled that generations of students and faculty are going to have the opportunity to continue the research that has been going on on our property, and we’re all very grateful that the University of Dubuque has agreed to continue managing the land as a sustainable landscape.”

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