Life

Meet the ranger who takes care of Iowa's oldest state park

Iowa Department of Natural Resources park ranger Dave Sunne has been a ranger at Backbone State Park for the past 23 yea
Iowa Department of Natural Resources park ranger Dave Sunne has been a ranger at Backbone State Park for the past 23 years. Photographed at the park near Dundee, Iowa, on Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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In the 100 years since Iowa’s first state park, Backbone State Park, was created in northeast Iowa, it has gone from mostly farmland to a mecca for rock climbers, hikers and trout fishermen.

Today, it’s an in-demand location for weddings, and its forests and trails draw outdoor enthusiasts year-round. The 2,001-acre park is along the Maquoketa River north of Manchester, in Delaware County.

Many of Backbone State Park’s beautiful stone buildings and arches were built by workers in the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, a jobs program during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

When talking about the history of the state park, longtime Backbone Ranger Dave Sunne’s already upbeat voice gains new animation.

“My favorite talk to give is the history of Backbone, which includes a lot of the CCC stuff. Because there were two CCC camps here at Backbone, so you can’t hardly talk about the history of Backbone without talking about the history of the CCC,” Sunne said. “We like to honor, not so much the program itself, but the young men who worked so hard while they were here and all that they accomplished.”

Sunne, 57, has been a park ranger for more than 30 years. Growing up in north central Iowa, he started off wanting to be a game warden. His plans changed after getting a summer job at McIntosh Woods State Park near Clear Lake.

Becoming a park ranger requires more than a love of nature. Rangers have to have a four-year college degree — Sunne’s is in fisheries and wildlife biology from Iowa State University; have at least three to five summers of job experience working in parks; and, as conservation officers, go through the same training at the police academy as any law enforcement officer in the state.

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It’s also a job that is hard to put a time clock on. Living in the park with his wife, Julie, and with a never-ending list of things to take care of, Sunne has had to learn to prioritize his to-do list.

“In the summertime, it’s definitely hard to stop sometimes,” he said. “You have to prioritize, what has to get done today, what can wait till tomorrow.”

Three full-time rangers work at Backbone State Park. Sunne holds the officer position, “so I work more on the law enforcement end of it, and a little bit of management, and then I also get involved in maintenance, too,” he said.

“A state park, you’ve got to look at it like a small town. We’ve got wastewater facilities, drinking water facilities, just like a small town would,” Sunne said.

Rangers have to be certified in water and wastewater management because they are always testing and making sure the outflow of the sewer lagoons meets federal requirements. Sunne also spends a considerable amount of time checking people in and out of the park’s two campgrounds and 16 cabins.

Backbone State Park was the first state park created in Iowa after passage of the State Park Act in 1917; the park was dedicated in May 1920. Its name comes from the steep, narrow ridge of bedrock that forms the highest point in northeast Iowa — originally called the “Devil’s Backbone.”

The park has a lodge, a museum, campgrounds, four-season cabins and picnic shelters; 21 miles of trails and rough, rocky staircases; and rock climbing on dolomite limestone cliffs. You can fish for trout in a stream that feeds the lake and boat on the lake (electric motors only). Kayaks, canoes and paddleboats are available to rent.

A 100-year-old park can be challenging to maintain, Sunne acknowledged.

“Originally, it was mostly farmland, so they had to plant a lot of trees. Now, many of our trees are 100 years old or older, so now we’re on the other end of that spectrum, where we have a lot of hazard trees that we have to take down every year,” he said.

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The buildings erected in the 1930s have been maintained over the years, with the Beach Lodge scheduled for renovation this year.

The rangers sometimes need to be creative when finding the funding for upkeep. For example, this year’s renovations will be funded by grant money from the estate of Leona Helmsley, the late real estate tycoon.

“We have a lot of facilities here at Backbone and not a very big budget, so that’s always a challenge, to make sure that we prioritize what we spend that money on so we can maintain everything properly,” Sunne said.

One of Sunne’s favorite places in Backbone is the stone, open-air auditorium. While one or two weddings are held there every summer and fall weekend, it’s one of the quietest spots in the park during the week. Surrounded by mature oak trees and perched atop a hill next to the Barred Owl Trail, you can see the trout stream in the distance.

“It’s a very peaceful part of the park normally, where you can kind of get a little bit of seclusion from other folks — when there’s not a wedding,” he said.

Sunne said a big rededication ceremony was planned at the park in May, with Gov. Kim Reynolds in attendance, but it was postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic. He’s hoping the plan to hold 100 events throughout the state parks to mark the system’s 100th anniversary still will be able to happen this year.

“We have an awesome state park system here in Iowa. Most people, when they think about state parks, they don’t think about Iowa too much,” Sunne said. “Of course, I’m a little biased, too, but we have some of the best state parks in the United States, and it’s right in our backyard.”

Sunne has worked at several of those parks over the years and can’t decide on a favorite.

“There’s some really hidden gems, like Lake of Three Fires down by Bedford. That’s a beautiful park in its own way,” Sunne said. “Northeast Iowa has so many beautiful parks scenery-wise. You’ve got Pikes Peak and Yellow River and the Volga recreation area.

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“On the other side of the state, you’ve got the Gull Point complex. The Great Lakes of northwest Iowa are just impressive.”

“I can’t really think of any park that I don’t like. They all have their unique characteristics.”

Learn more about Iowa’s 68 state parks and the latest information on closings and restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic at iowadnr.gov.

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