Volunteers Rescue Iowa's Underfunded State Parks
It’s a grim present and grimmer future for Iowa’s state parks.
Significant budget cuts mean reduced park staff hours, and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has made mowing grass less of a priority in order to concentrate on servicing more heavily-used campgrounds, beaches and lodge areas, the Mason City Globe Gazette reported.
“I’ve worked for the DNR for 31 years, and this is the worst it’s ever been, with actually no end in sight, from what I see,” said Deb Coates, park ranger at Rice Lake, Pilot Knob State Park near Forest City, and A.A. Call State Park near Algona. “They always say there’s a chance that we might not even have any summer help next year. We really rely on our summer help to help with maintenance.”
Coates has turned to volunteers for help.
Actually, they came to her.
About 17 of them take turns mowing at scenic Rice Lake — which looks better than ever, said volunteer Harris Honsey, a Rice Lake neighbor.
“Nobody’s complaining. They’re all happy to jump in and help,” he said. “We don’t want to have people drive in and see our state parks overgrown with weeds and grass. That’s just not acceptable.”
If you’re willing to help, Coates will probably take you up on it.
She has one employee who works 23 hours a week at Pilot Knob, and one who works nine hours a week at A.A. Call.
She has campground hosts at Pilot Knob, the biggest of the three parks.
And, besides herself, that’s it. Except for those volunteers.
“They’re taking their spare time to come out and do this stuff,” Coates said. “Whenever they can do it, whatever they can do, if they’re willing to do it, we’ll ask them what their schedule is. Whatever they do, it just frees us up to do other stuff that we need to get done.
“I can’t say enough to those people, because it is a big, big help,” she said.
Volunteers at McIntosh Woods State Park near Ventura have built a new boardwalk through the wetland marsh, and added rock gravel to camping pads. They pick up trash and branches, paint tables and whack weeds.
“Volunteers have been helping us get through some tough times,” park manager Tammy Domonoske said. “I like working with them, because they’re excited, energetic and motivated; they come with a whole new perspective.”
The state park system is “unsustainable,” Iowa Parks Bureau Chief Kevin Szcodronski told a Senate committee earlier this year.
He said unkempt hiking paths, out-of-service facilities and days with no staff on duty could become the norm.
Szcodronski said his budget has been cut by about 20% in the past three years. He’s gone from 100 to about 79 full-time staff, and seasonal staff went from about 300 positions to fewer than 60.
Domonoske once had three full-time summer staff. Now there’s one, working 20 to 25 hours a week.
Since about 2008 there’s been one part-time summer aide at Pilot Knob.
“It’s probably lucky for us that our summers are short up here,” Coates said. “Mosquitoes are bad enough, let alone having tall grass. There’s a lot of maintenance in these parks that a lot of people don’t realize. The trails really do take a lot of work. That’s one of the things that goes on the back burner, too, which is sad.
“You just kind of have to reset your priorities on what you feel is important to the public,” she said. “Basically, people want things mowed, they want things clean, and they want things safe.”
There is hope.
Voters last fall approved the Iowa Water and Land Legacy fund, to which three-eighths of 1% of the next state sales tax increase will be committed.
The fund, as currently estimated, would raise $150 million per year for natural resources programs. The DNR will receive $35 million for its conservation and recreation programs.
“Hopefully it’ll turn around here and things will get better throughout the country,” Domonoske said. “I try to be optimistic. We just need a more stable funding source for state parks.”
Coates hopes no parks have to close.
“It’s a tough one,” she said. “We do what we can do. You just take what comes and then you deal with it. You always have to think positive and hope next year will be better. You just hope things don’t get worse.”