The legacy of Ding Darling

“Land, water and vegetation are just that dependent on one another. Without these three primary elements in natural balance, we can have neither fish nor game, wild flowers nor trees, labor nor capital, nor sustaining habitat for humans.” - Jay Norwood Darling

It doesn’t take much time at Lake Darling State Park to really see the legacy of Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling at work.

I remember the first time I visited the park. I had only just arrived in Washington County and was sent to cover a meeting regarding the draining of the lake. The huge difference that stuck out to me about that assignment was the camaraderie of all the people involved in the project. It’s a rare thing to see many groups all working together for the common good without some egos getting in the way of progress. In this case, the lake project would not have been possible without the assistance of the state Department of Natural Resources and private area landowners working together with a nice chunk of help from the Friends of Lake Darling group. It took over a decade, but there are now 24 ponds on private land neighboring the lake to capture contaminants. The lake was drained and entirely rebuilt over a multi-year process to eliminate contaminants. As long as they were at it, plenty of changes, including trails and new buildings, were made to the park. Today we have a nice lodge, new cabins and a long hiking trail that spans the entire lake. For those who have never been out there, you really owe it to yourself to have a look. I’m sure that right now the park, just like everywhere else in the area, is covered with snow. When spring springs, the rebirth of nature in the park is really something to behold.

I’m writing this on Tuesday, Feb. 12 - Ding Darling Day. He died Feb. 12, 1962,at the age of 85 and, for some reason, Feb. 12 is remembered as Ding Darling Day. I guess Oct. 27 (his birthday) was already taken by something else. For those who don’t know, Darling was a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Des Moines Register and Leader. While in college, he took to signing work with the contracted version of his last name - D’ing. The nickname stuck.

The stereotype is that reporters are supposed to dispassionately report on events in the community. The reality is very far from that. Being on the front lines of most things happening in a community, reporters care a great deal about what happens. In many cases, the author of this column included, reporters actually volunteer on their off time to help further in the communty. While they always have to be careful not to cross the line into a territory of bias, reporters try to help where they can. Darling knew this and built himself quite the legacy as a proponent of nature.

During his lifetime, Ding was an important figure in the conservation movement. He even took his passion for nature and conservation from Iowa to Washington, D.C. Ding served on the Federal Wildlife Committee. In 1934 he began the Federal Duck Stamp program, which requires hunters to purchase a stamp before hunting waterfowl. He was instrumental in founding the National Wildlife Federation in 1936. I have never been able to look at a cartoon Ding penned without realizing the topic he is describing is still important and all that would have to be done to make the cartoon relevant today is simply change a character. Due to his passion for wildlife, Lake Darling State Park was named in his honor and dedicated on Sept. 17, 1950.

Some of the things I have seen happen at Lake Darling since I have been here are truly amazing. When speaking with the Friends of Lake Darling, the members tell me they are planning a four seasons lodge. I shrug, thinking it would be some time before that happens. Inside a year the building is being dedicated. Someone comments that a pedestrian bridge is needed across the silt dam. The next time I go to the first day hike on Jan. 1, I wind up standing on the bridge. The Friends definitely have Ding’s propensity for making things happen. I think they also have inherited his love of nature and making sure it continues for the next generation.

I can’t help but wonder what Ding would think of his legacy being carried on today by groups of people for the park that was named in his honor. I think he would have been pleased.