116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources once wanted park rangers or other staff to live in every state park “to provide security for DNR property and adequate protection for the general public,” according to guidelines the DNR set in 2007.
Natural Resources officials at the time believed the value of live-in park staff was worth the cost of housing.
“Any apparent compensation is offset by the requirement that the employee is subject to duty at all hours,” the guidelines state. “The public will be able to contact the employee at the residence in person or by phone to purchase licenses or permits; for general information; and in case of an emergency.”
The DNR now wants park rangers and other staff to move out of the parks, saying it won’t affect park safety.
“Staff will continue to work their normal hours and be available for emergency response in the same manner as in parks that do not have staff who live on-site,” DNR Spokeswoman Tammie Krausman said in an email. “Staff and district supervisors set work hours in shifts that best cover the management of the park, regardless of where the staff reside.”
Shift ‘sad,’ former ranger says
This dramatic shift is frustrating to current and former park rangers, who say staff presence in state park housing provides a great service to campers and other park users.
“Either the doorbell would be ringing or the phone would be ringing,” said Gary Poen, 71, about the 27 years he lived in Viking Lake State Park, in Stanton, as park ranger. “The family was pretty well part of the park operations.”
He remembers letting scared campers stay in his basement during storms, selling fishing licenses at his front door and answering calls about camping availability. Poen and his wife raised four boys while living at Viking Lake. One of them, Jeff Poen, went on to become a ranger at Big Creek State Park, near Polk City.
“Back in my day, the park ranger had kind of like ownership. You put more energy into it,” Gary Poen said. “Today, the DNR wants people to have not so much ownership. They want it to be a job where people work eight to five and go home. It’s sad what’s going on.”
Iowa’s state parks saw record use in 2021 with nearly 17 million visitors and more than 1 million camping guest days, according to new DNR data. The visitation total is even higher than the record 16.6 million in 2020, when Iowans sought entertainment outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
DNR reviewing all housing
The DNR housing guidelines say live-in park staff “will be able to remain there until they voluntarily move out of the house or the person moves out due to attrition.”
However, the DNR told rangers and other staff Nov. 29, 2021, they had to be out of state-owned houses by Nov. 30, 2022 — including some rangers who were recently required to move into park houses as a condition of employment.
“Terminating parks housing is a new decision and will require an update to or rescission of the existing housing policy,” DNR Deputy Director Alex Moon said in an email.
The decision was not announced to the public — which Moon told Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, is typical for park staffing changes. Moon said the DNR has other divisions that provide housing and the DNR will review those too.
One example of DNR-owned housing is temporary housing for summer workers at Honey Creek Resort, near Moravia. Management firm Delaware North paid $500,000 to build that housing in 2016 or 2017. The resort hired more than 20 employees from Thailand in the summer of 2017, the DNR told The Gazette in 2018.
The DNR now is considering selling the resort, which has struggled with low occupancy for many years.
One question that has persisted since The Gazette first wrote about the DNR evicting state park staff is why the agency let housing deteriorate to a point the DNR estimates it would cost up to $1 million to make repairs to 26 houses in 23 state parks.
The DNR was responsible for maintaining house systems, including the furnace, water heater, air conditioner, and the roof and siding, according to the housing guidelines. Staff who wanted to make other improvements to the houses, such as adding a deck or installing new flooring, could do so on state time if the projects were approved.
“They’ve always been tight on spending money on state houses,” said Dave Sunne, who was a ranger and lived in Backbone State Park, near Dundee, for 24 years. The house he lived in was a modular home purchased from Montgomery Ward in the 1970s and placed on the stone foundation of a previous house, Sunne said.
In his early years, if Sunne wanted to replace a light fixture or put up new drywall, the DNR would pay for materials, but not labor, he said. But in recent years, the DNR was less likely to approve expenses beyond new paint.
All state-owned houses were to be inspected once a year, at which time a supervisor would determine if the house needed maintenance. A March 2, 2020, inspection of the house at Backbone said the floor coverings needed to be replaced and the garage should be demolished.
The DNR still is determining what it will do with the state park houses once vacated.
Some houses were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s and may have historical value to maintain as a lodge, office or a cabin available for public rental, the DNR said. But other houses may be torn down, Krausman said.
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