State parks ‘couldn’t function without volunteers’

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Amber Strohbehn plays with her daughter, Meadow, at the Dream Playground at Lake Manawa State Park in Council Bluffs in May 2021. (Photo by John Naughton for IowaWatch)

Barbara Lee of Council Bluffs took her daughter to Lake Manawa State Park’s playground in the early 1990s. Now she’s able to watch her granddaughter play in an updated version in Dreamland Park.

The 18,000-square-foot playground, which opened in 2018, cost $1.3 million to produce. More than 1,200 volunteers from ages 3 to 88 took part in making the project possible; it replaced a wooden playground from 1992.

A team of civic leaders drove the million-dollar mission, obtaining several $100,000 grants and assisting in construction.

It’s one of the biggest state park projects that required essential efforts by volunteers.

“To have such a nice facility in Council Bluffs is fantastic,” Lee said. “It’s a great place for people to get together.”

Iowa’s largest ADA-accessible playground is a jewel in the state’s park system, which includes 67 parks and four state forests.

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A network of volunteers and park friends’ groups work along with employees to make parks run smoothly. The impact is hard to calculate in dollars so here are numbers:

— In 2019, a total of 5,552 volunteers provided 71,396 hours of service.

— In 2020, during a pandemic that resulted in shortened seasons and opportunities, 3,029 volunteers donated 67,286 hours of service, according to Todd Coffelt, chief of the state parks bureau with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The volunteers oversee campgrounds as resident hosts, clean and maintain parks, and serve to bring communities’ visions into reality. When a major project requires muscle and money, they step in with labor, programming and fundraising.

“A lot of times that park will reflect that community – and that community will reflect that park,” said Coffelt.

Todd Coffelt, state Bureau Chief for State Parks, Forests and Preserves. Submitted photo.

Iowa’s parks, which celebrated their centennial last year, grew in visitor numbers during the pandemic. Some parts of parks closed due to the pandemic or were impacted by the derecho that hit Iowa in August.

Camping in state parks – or “COVID camping” as one campground host described it – has given Iowans a chance to vacation while maintaining mask-less social distance.

“Parks are a safe outdoor location, relatively speaking,” Coffelt said.

More than ever, volunteers are sought to supplement state budgets and provide interpretation skills that would not be filled by full-time employees.

Backbone State Park near Dundee, which turned 100 last year, welcomes visitors with a museum honoring Civilian Conservation Corps that built many of the rustic stone and wood buildings in the park. (The museum is currently closed to visitors due to COVID.)

At Maquoketa Caves State Park, volunteers helped build wooden walkways that navigate the rocky, rolling trails. They provided 3,000 linear feet of boardwalk that provide accessibility to the park.

That manpower is vital to making it happen.

“You can get things done a lot quicker,” said Ryland Richards, a DNR technician at the park.

The Pine Creek Grist Mill at Muscatine’s Wildcat Den, which has been closed due to COVID, has been a living history museum for generations. It was built in 1848 – two years after Iowa became a state. A friends’ group offers interpretive talks.

State park volunteers make contributions that act like the motor oil that runs through an automobile; they keep things running.

“We couldn’t function without the volunteers,” said Nate Detrich, park manager at Backbone.

Pine Creek Grist Mill in Wildcat Den State Park has been supported through volunteers. It is believed to be the oldest working grist mill in the U.S. between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. (Submitted photo courtesy of visitmuscatine.com)

Wildcat Den: Working mill provides living history

Benjamin Nye built a grist mill on Pine Creek near Muscatine in 1848. Today, it gives visitors a chance to learn about the early days of Iowa’s history.

The Pine Creek Grist Mill is a feature of Wildcat Den State Park. It’s believed to be the oldest working grist mill between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.

The mill had a long history in private hands – it was used to grind flour and animal feed – until the state purchased it in 1927.

The creek powers the mill and volunteers show off its operations and talk about its history to visitors. Although it has been closed due to the pandemic, officials hope to reopen it this summer.

Tom Hanifan, member of the Friends of the Pine Creek Grist Mill

“It brings so many people to the park,” said Tom Hanifan, a member of the Friends of Pine Creek Grist Mill.

Area schoolchildren visit the mill on field trips. Approximately 1,000 kids stop in every year. In many cases, children return with their families.

“A family will come in, led by a child,” Hanifan said. “They get excited about what they see.”

Although most of the traffic is from Iowa or nearby Illinois, there typically were visitors from about a dozen countries every year.

The Friends of Pine Creek Grist Mill addresses the mill’s needs as it approaches its bicentennial.

Mill technology of Iowa’s pioneer days when it was first built was taught in Europe; it wasn’t taught in the United States. The parks agency couldn’t afford to have fulltime employees to keep the mill running and to provide history lessons to visitors, whether one or 100 show up on a given day.

A companion 1850s log cabin stands nearby. It was dismantled many years ago, then stored for generations before it was rebuilt.

The result is like a time machine for visitors.

“We wouldn’t be where we are without volunteers,” Hanifan said.

Camping hosts offer a ‘face’ to park volunteers

Thad Overturf of Ottumwa has a summer job that involves being an ambassador for Iowa.

Overturf is spending his fourth year as a campground host. He serves at Backbone State Park a dozen miles away from Manchester. In exchange for a free campground spot, he helps orient people new to camping, helps keep the restrooms clean and the area free from trash.

A year ago, Iowans were introduced to what Overturf calls “COVID camping.” Residents who were tired of being homebound or had travel plans restricted by the pandemic turned to Iowa parks for relaxing, safe vacations.

Many newbies visited Iowa parks for their first camping trips. Some bought recreation vehicles and drove them off the dealer lots straight to one of Backbone’s campgrounds.

A few of the newcomers hadn’t bothered to pack clothing or supplies. One didn’t know how to set up his vehicle in a safe manner.

A historical marker in Backbone State Park near Dundee recognizes the Civilian Conservation Corps’ efforts. (Photo by John Naughton for IowaWatch)

Overturf laughs about watching a first-time camper walk to the shower facilities wearing full makeup and high heels.

The volunteer oversees about 100 camping sites, from tents to enormous vehicles that look like a home with wheels.

Overturf estimated he serves about 8,000 campers a year. It’s his job to help veteran and new campers enjoy their stay.

“You have to have the mindset to help them have the best camping experience,” Overturf said.

Backbone is Iowa oldest state park, opening in 1920. It boasts a rich and rugged history that matches the rough hewn stone and rock buildings and fences constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s.

Members of the park’s friends group provide labor, programming and funds to help run the park, said Detrich.

In recent years, volunteers planted 900 trees, helped provide funds for dredging a lake, bought tracks for a motorized four-wheel vehicle, sponsored a spring trail run and fishing clinics, built a playground and helped run a museum that honors the CCC.

 Without the presence of volunteers, there wouldn’t be money to perform certain tasks.

“They pay for stuff our budget can’t handle,” Detrich said.

Groups of volunteers fill needs when it comes to getting jobs done quickly.

Recently, a dozen students at nearby Edgewood-Colesburg schools picked up trash and painted picnic tables at the park. It was a simple one-day project, but something that improved the park’s appearance.

“They make my job easier,” Detrich said.

Volunteers from the Friends of the Maquoketa Caves State Park take a big role in projects throughout the park. More than 3,000 linear feet of boardwalk were replaced by the group, according to a park official. Taken May 2021. (Photo by John Naughton for IowaWatch)

Iowa parks bounce back from derecho

Maquoketa Caves State Park near the city of Maquoketa offers visitors a scenic view of sheer rock walls, caves and unique rock formations.

It’s also a park devastated by 2020’s pandemic, derecho and a disease that has affected the resident bat population.

In the wake of all those troubles, local volunteers stepped in. The park, which closed to the public in fall 2020, reopened in mid-April.

The park’s Friends group of volunteers gathered branches and other storm debris to supplement the work of park employees that removed trees downed by the massive windstorm derecho that hit Aug. 10, 2020.

When large projects need manpower, volunteers can quickly shorten the time.

Richards, the DNR technician at the park, said volunteers helped build 73 picnic tables now in use. It was a job that would be impractical for the two full-time staff and seven seasonal workers to perform.

“It’d take us all season to replace 73 of them,” Richards said.

Balanced Rock, shown in May 2021, is one of the most famous features at Maquoketa Caves State Park. (Photo by John Naughton for IowaWatch)

He estimated that 3,000 linear feet of boardwalk were cut to keep the park’s wooden walkways usable. The paths are a familiar sight at Maquoketa Caves, as they allow visitors of all ages to navigate trails that cut through rocks and steep hills.

That project took one week for 30 volunteers – it would have kept the park staff — busy for months and limited public access to trails during that span.

Volunteers also sell firewood and concessions to guests, helping provide them with convenience while bringing welcome revenue to the park.

Richards said some volunteers are on call to provide immediate assistance.

Like many other Iowa parks, the community takes pride in its state park. The parks bring visitors to the area, which in turn provides revenue for the community.

“Our community loves having us here,” Richards said.

ABOUT IOWA’S STATE PARKS

This project, Iowa’s State Parks, is a partnership between IowaWatch – the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism and the Iowa Newspaper Foundation with the goal of looking closely at one of Iowa’s most valued resources (especially in the last year): the state parks system.

IowaWatch led the writing and reporting with state parks visited by Silvia Oakland, a Wartburg College journalism student, Danielle Gehr, a former IowaWatch intern and now an Ames Tribune reporter, John Naughton, a freelance writer and former Des Moines Register reporter, and Emery Styron, a freelance journalist. The Cedar Rapids Gazette staff contributed as well with visits to state parks.

IowaWatch and the INF will continue to partner on this series.