Academic journal article The Geographical Bulletin

Framing Iowa's "Fragile Giants"

Academic journal article The Geographical Bulletin

Framing Iowa's "Fragile Giants"

Article excerpt


On November 23, 1997, The Des Moines Registers editorial page featured a column with the sub-headline "The time is right to begin a crusade to create a national park in Iowa" (TDMR 1997). This bold statement marked the beginning of an editorial campaign by The Des Moines Register (TDMR) to create a national park in Iowas Loess Hills, a geologic landform of eolian silt deposits spanning seven counties in western Iowa (Fig. 1). This is not altogether unusual. TDMR, like most newspapers, has embarked on numerous editorial campaigns in its history. In their own words: aDMR Editorial Campaigns have sometimes persuaded Iowans to the newspapers point of view, other times they haven't. Either way, they have been cussed and discussed in Iowa for nearly all of the newspapers 150 years" (TDMR 1999). TDMRs bid to create a national park in the Loess Hills ultimately failed due to local opposition and excessive land acquisition costs (NPS 2001). However, this editorial campaign is interesting because the preservation of a landscape was the main focus, and issues of soil mining, agricultural land use, urban sprawl, and tourism were "cussed and discussed" within its boundaries.

In this article I outline how the Loess Hills amenity landscape was constructed by the state as a response to postindustrial restructuring, which in Iowa takes the form of declining agricultural employment, increasing rural outmigration and consequent urbanization. However, my primary goal is to show how TDMRs framing of the landscape aided the states efforts by promoting public policy and tourism. In this analysis of DMR articles, from their 1996 editorial campaign until the publication of a National Park Service study in 2001, the discursive landscape promoted by TDMR and the post-rural landscape created by the state mutually reinforced one another. My motivation for this article is to demonstrate how discursive representations of places are related in powerful ways to the actual places they represent. Ed Soja (1989, 6) has offered that: "we must be insistently aware of how space can be made to hide consequences from us, how relations of power and discipline are inscribed into the apparently innocent spatiality of social life, how human geographies become filled with politics and ideology." It is evident that TDMRs coverage of the Loess Hills privileged touristic, sentimental, and environmentalist representations that appealed to a largely urban audience to build support for public policies that would fundamentally change the landscape of western Iowa. The implications of such a research agenda can be extended beyond the fairly banal geographies of rural Iowa and into debates over environmental conservation in places around the world where land use decisions are being wrenched from local political and cultural systems in favor of urban demands for nature, scenery, and recreation.

According to anthropologist J. Peter Brosius (1999, 281) "One of the most urgent tasks in the analysis of contemporary environmentalism is to understand the ways in which particular topologies- constructions of actual and metaphorical space- are discursively produced and reproduced." The scientific and political production of a new landscape by the State of Iowa and the discursive reproduction of it by TDMR provided a vision of what the Loess Hills could (and should) be. The landscape was not simply a benign, pre-existing place, but rather a tool used to spatialize public policies that sought to rearrange political and economic space in postindustrial Iowa. The discourse, or the language and symbolism used to simultaneously represent and construct the landscape, was deployed by TDMR to build support for a national park amongst urban Iowans.


The Loess Hills are a geologic landform consisting of eroded eolian deposits of sediment. During the last glacial advance in North America, huge amounts of sediment were washed down the Missouri River valley. …

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