Des Moines County parks ready for guests forward of tenting season

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Winter has reluctantly loosened its grip on the region and attention is now turning to spring work.

Nowhere is this shifting focus more pronounced than in Des Moines County’s popular park system, where 19 park lots need to be prepared for warm-weather visitors.

There are approximately 2,000 acres of parks, trails, campgrounds, visitor centers and parking lots in the Des Moines County park system that need dusting and cleaning in the spring, and the county’s conservation teams have already taken on the daunting task.

More than 150 picnic tables need to be repaired and set up in parking lots, which are now ringing to the sound of chainsaws as fallen trees and threatening branches are cleared from nature trails. The water supply will be restored and the fire rings will be cleaned and repaired at the campgrounds that offer this amenity.

Chris Lee, executive director of Des Moines County Conservation, explained that staff teams and volunteers are facing time pressures as the various parks’ opening dates near.

“One of the things that needs to be done is to go all avenues to determine where dangerous trees and branches could be a problem,” Lee said. “This must be done by April 1st because regulations issued by the State Department of Natural Resources prohibit us from cutting down trees after April 1st.

“This ban is in effect through October 1 to protect the endangered Indiana bat that would nest in these trees.”

Before:James Madison Plot Home of the Indiana bat

County crews are also paying attention to trail washouts caused by winter snow and spring rains. If necessary, rock is brought to the washout sites to reduce the risk of accidents.

Reed Chicken, operations manager at Graystone Construction, takes a break from using a backhoe to move earth to check the grade while colleague Clay Poggemiller looks on Thursday as the two work to improve Big Hollow Park's boat ramp in the Replace near by Sperry.

Boat ramp installations in progress

In Big Hollow, the county’s premier campground and wilderness area near the village of Sperry, contractors are replacing the park’s boat ramp, which provides access to the popular fishing and boating lake. This should be completed in two weeks.

The ramp has long been the subject of complaints from boaters due to its 18% steepness. Most ramps in county and state parks are between 12-15% and the changes made now will bring the Big Hollow ramps into that range.

More:Big Hollow Recreation Area may receive more campgrounds and improved accessibility

“This was the #1 complaint we received about the park facilities,” Lee explained. “The ramp change will be paid for by private donations, water access grants and government taxes levied on the sale of marine fuel. No Des Moines County taxpayer money is being spent on this.”

Boat ramp facilities are also on the to-do list along the Mississippi River, where the county maintains four ramp locations. Placement of docks at these access points will likely be delayed until April-May to avoid spring flooding on the river.

Reed Chicken, operations manager at Graystone Construction, uses an excavator to remove debris from a waiting dump truck driven by Clay Poggemiller on Thursday as it works to replace Big Hollow Park's boat ramp, near Sperry.

Volunteers are needed due to budget constraints and increased park attendance

This year, Des Moines County Conservation will be under extra pressure to complete a park system that has seen an explosive growth in public popularity. Jeff Breuer, administrative assistant for the county’s conservation department, reported that traffic on the county’s Flint River Trail has more than doubled in 2021, and many campgrounds are already reserved for specific dates for the coming year.

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This challenge of getting the county park system ready is compounded by the budget constraints now being experienced. This has had an impact on headcount and the planned hiring of four seasonal workers over the summer months has resulted in that number being reduced to one.

For part-time employees, which was also originally set at four, that number has halved. The four full-time field workers were also reduced to two due to sick leave and mandatory training.

In response to these downsizing and the parks’ growing popularity, Des Moines County Conservation will seek to recruit volunteers for functions such as staffing Starr’s Cave Nature Center and supporting the park’s youth activities.

More:“They are such cool birds”: Bridge to Starr’s Cave closed to protect great horned owl and nest

The department reports that despite the challenges, the park system will be ready to welcome visitors when the warm weather returns.