116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The majority of Iowa state park staff being asked to move out of government-owned houses on the properties say the parks will be less safe and the public will have fewer services with there being no live-in rangers, managers and technicians.
In a survey conducted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources of 21 park staff living in state parks, 15 said they would not be able to do the essential duties of their jobs if they had to leave as the state has ordered.
“If on-site state housing was not provided, I would not be able to provide the timely customer service that I have done for many years,” one park manager said.
These services include “responding timely to drownings, storm events/fatalities, medical emergencies, offering aid and traffic control to vehicular accidents, providing directions to misguided motorists, assisting the public finding lost children or pets, resolving domestic issues or complaints in the campground, and checking on numerous complaints when the sheriff's office calls … just to name a few.”
The Iowa DNR has told park staff to move out by Nov. 1, citing as a primary factor the cost of maintaining the houses, some of which were built in the 1930s.
The Iowa DNR asked state park staff to move out of houses at these state parks:
• Beeds Lake
• Bellevue (2 houses)
• Big Creek
• Brushy Creek
• George Wyth
• Green Valley
• Honey Creek
• Lacey Keosauqua (2 houses)
• Lake Keomah
• Lake Manawa
• Lake of Three Fires
• Macbride (2 houses)
• Maquoketa Caves
• Nine Eagles
• Pikes Peak
• Red Haw
• Rock Creek
• Union Grove
• Viking Lake
An overall inventory of 26 state park houses shows it would cost the state $341,000 to get them up to code and another $556,000 for deferred maintenance, such as replacing windows, siding, roofs and heating and air conditioning systems. The agency estimates it would need another $100,000 a year for ongoing maintenance if the houses were still being lived in.
There also are deteriorating houses at other state parks, but no staff live there. If the state repaired all the houses, it could cost an estimated $2 million.
“Any decision impacting staff at this scale was not taken lightly, nor was it solely about not wanting to fix up the houses,” Iowa DNR spokeswoman Tammie Krausman said in an email this week.
“Data collection regarding public safety, customer service impacts, and the technological investments in radios and cellphones, in addition to the condition of the houses, helped lead to this decision. This decision was about the future of the State Parks, Forest and Preserves system as a whole. This decision, while incredibly difficult for some, impacts a small portion of this system.”
Of 48 park rangers, managers and other staff included in the agency’s 2021 survey, 21 live rent-free in houses at state parks. For some, living in the park was required as a condition of employment. Other rangers and managers were allowed to live outside the park as long as they were no more than 20 miles away.
Staff are paid the same whether they get free housing or not. The annual salary range for a park ranger is $55,972 to $84,115.
A summary of survey responses provided to a lawmaker included the titles, but not names of the respondents.
Staff who live at rural state parks said in the survey they did not think they could find nearby housing they could afford. Living farther away from the parks would mean a slower response to emergencies, they said.
“Response time would go from 5-10 to 30-50 min,” one ranger wrote. “Some staff would be forced to move away from this park/job because they cannot afford to live in the area. Relationships with surrounding L.E. (law enforcement) departments would deteriorate because the state would be relying on them (pushing parks problems/issues) on them to handle issues that were normally handled by on site staff.”
On-site staff are able to help park users during weather emergencies, including heavy snowfall, rainstorms or tornadoes, they said.
“If I did not live at the house, visitors would need to contact 911 and wait until an officer is available,” a park manager wrote. “The responders are not familiar with the park, trails or specific campsites. … Response and assistance would be delayed waiting until I arrive to help them navigate the areas.”
Another park manager described warning campers about a tornado that happened on his day off.
“I was able to round up all the campers and motioned other vehicles coming in the park entrance to pull over and get inside the shower building because of an approaching tornado (which resulted in over 4,000 trees down/damaged) and because of my quick response we had zero injuries.”
Park staff mentioned heightened risk of vandalism, theft and illegal harvesting of trees and plants without an overnight staff presence in the parks.
“You need to understand, if no one is here that is an employee, I'm certain constant pillage will ensue,” wrote an Iowa DNR carpenter who lives in state-owned housing.
Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel said moving the park ranger out of Lake Macbride State Park, near Solon, will mean his deputies will more often be the first responders to emergencies at the busy park.
“With a campground full of campers and swimmers and everything else, it’s a nice feeling knowing you have a law enforcement officer on site if anything happens,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll see an increase in calls out there without having a ranger out there 24/7.”
Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, introduced House File 2255, which would allocate $20 million from the federal American Rescue Plan toward repairs and renovations of buildings in Iowa’s 71 state parks, forests and preserves. The bill, which sets aside $4 million of the total for ranger houses, was referred to the House Natural Resources Committee last week.
Other lawmakers say they are working with the Iowa DNR to allow some staff to stay until they retire or until they find alternate housing.
“They are putting some of these folks at financial risk,” said Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, D-Waterloo. “Buying a home right now is the worst time. The staff at our parks don’t make a lot of money.”
Brown-Powers said the Iowa DNR has been underfunded for years, leading to a situation in which the agency lost park rangers and other staff. The state had 35 park rangers in 2020, down from 55 in 1995, IowaWatch reported. That means there’s now one ranger for every 474,286 park visits, down from the 1995 ratio of one to 217,700.
But she noted the agency is spending $1 million on adding new signs at state parks. “You have a million dollars to do the signage, so I’m not sure you’re in that dire of a situation,” she said.
In addition to avoiding the cost of updating staff housing, the department would save money on utilities and not have the liability of people living in the parks, Krausman said. Once staff are out, the Iowa DNR will assess whether the houses should be torn down or improved so they can be turned into offices or cabins available for public rental.
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Erin Murphy of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.