If you’ve driven the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, passed the SIRE ethanol plant, tasted local foods at an Iowa winery, biked the Wabash Trace Nature Trail, walked through a restored Iowa prairie, kayaked down the Nishnabotna River, or attended the Rural Ramble and Southwest Iowa Art Tour, you’ve experienced a project or event coordinated by Golden Hills RC&D.
Nestled by three ash trees, a “Golden Hills RC&D” sign peeks through the edge of Highway 6 on the south side of Oakland, Iowa.  
Built in 2000, this cream-colored “green building”—made of recycled materials—showcases skylights surrounding a seamless steel roof.  
This building catches little attention, but the organization has been working for 39 years to make Iowa better for its residents and attract tourism to Southwest Iowa.  What is “Golden Hills?” And what does “RC&D” mean?
“It started out as a dream,” Bob Smith of Sidney, the founder and original board member of Golden Hills RC&D, smiles, recalling its history.
 “Dreaming is all you can do to start something.  A group got together to dream up an idea.  It starts with the people, then get a coordinator, then brainstorm ideas.”  Bob explains,
“Golden Hills started as an RC&D (Resource Conservation and Development) Council in 1978.  Our group appointed one person to travel to each Southwest Iowa county to talk to organizations for funding; I was the one picked.”  
Named for Iowa’s beautiful landscape and golden hills and for its focus on land conservation (RC&D), Golden Hills Resource Conservation and Development became a not for profit 501(c)(3) organization originally authorized by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which assisted with rent and employee salaries.  
Iowa once had 12 RC&Ds, but shrinking federal and state operational funding reduced the number to eight.  In 2011, Golden Hills has branched out as a private nonprofit, fully funded by grants, contracts for service, and charitable support.
While its outreach includes Western Iowa, Golden Hills primarily serves eight Southwest Iowa counties:  Cass, Fremont, Harrison, Page, Mills, Montgomery, Pottawattamie, and Shelby.  
One representative from each county serves on the board. This small group selected Oakland as their meeting place because of its central location.  
Barry Deuel of Harlan, a board member since 1991, remembers most early projects were short-term.  At that time, Golden Hills helped small towns build dams to prevent erosion and provide shower houses for parks.  
Barry explains, “We enjoy helping individuals and communities, but we must have the staff to do it, to promote Iowa’s resources in the area.  It takes private work and government entities to fund projects.  This is a caring organization.”  And Bob Smith would agree, “It involves talking to people to get something done.  Golden Hills has the ‘it’s possible’ attitude.”
With a mission “to develop and promote sustainable cultural and conservation projects that enhance quality of life and preserve the assets of rural western Iowa,” Golden Hills provides local leadership and project framework in Southwest Iowa.
This organization connects people, putting Iowa’s assets together to invigorate communities, which includes projects related to local foods, arts and culture, agriculture, trails, prairies, rivers and waterways, land, and byways.  
Golden Hills wants to help residents see their area with new eyes, by providing economic development in a socially and environmentally responsible way.  Mary Lou Goettsch, Fiscal Manager maintains, “We don’t want to scar the area, but enhance the area.”  
The future is exciting.  Golden Hills has grown—from one project coordinator and a secretary to nine employees; they remain a successful nonprofit because they take challenges and turn them into opportunities; they network; they think outside the box, blending art and agriculture, history and nature.  
As a sustainable nonprofit, Golden Hills RC&D helps Southwest Iowans not just live, but have a better life as part of rural place-making.  As Executive Director Michelle Wodtke
Franks has observed, “We must be adaptable and responsive to local needs, and those change.”  While the main challenge is to secure funding to keep the organization running, the mission to preserve Iowa’s natural resources and enhance its culture remains the same.  
Golden Hills RC&D’s story is the people and the land, which grows stronger as Southwest Iowa’s businesses and residents pour in their support.  Barry Deuel says it best, “It just feels good to help people, and Golden Hills makes people’s lives better in Southwest Iowa.” Bob Smith still shows heartfelt emotion when talking about Golden Hills.  “Part of me is still there.”  
So, the next time you journey through Oakland, stop by the cream-colored building on the west side of the road.  Talk to us.  Ask questions.  Help us continue to make Iowa better, and be a part of Golden Hills:  one of Southwest Iowa’s best kept secrets.