Government

Lone rangers: Officers at Iowa state parks dwindle as visits swell

Park visitors enjoy a paddle July 24 on Backbone Lake at Backbone State Park near Dundee. Backbone is Iowa's oldest stat
Park visitors enjoy a paddle July 24 on Backbone Lake at Backbone State Park near Dundee. Backbone is Iowa’s oldest state park. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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State park rangers — certified peace officers who safeguard Iowa’s premier outdoor recreational areas — are confronting an increasingly endangered species: themselves.

Budget cuts have severely thinned the ranks of state park rangers over years — to 35 this year from between 45 and 55 in the late 1990s, State Parks Bureau data show. As a result, fewer park rangers are now serving far more visitors to state parks — especially as Iowans last summer crammed state park trails and campgrounds as some of the few practical getaways in the pandemic.

An IowaWatch review of state data shows that the ratio of park rangers to annual park visits has gone from one ranger per 217,700 visits in 1995 to one ranger per 422,269 visits in 2019.

The shortage has gotten more severe this year — the 100th anniversary of Iowa’s state park system — as thousands more visitors flocked to state parks.

Iowa’s presence of rangers is even scarcer than that of the national parks. A USA Today analysis found a similar but less severe decline in national park rangers, with one ranger per 180,068 visits to national parks in 2018.

Total visits to Iowa’s parks reached between 13.7 and 15.5 million annually over the past decade, according to state figures, and “we’re on a path to be 16 million-plus” in 2020, Todd Coffelt, chief of parks for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, told IowaWatch. Total visits could include multiple trips by the same people.

The department manages 68 state parks, recreation areas and four state forests. Twenty other state parks and recreation areas are managed by local governments, including cities, counties or townships.

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It stands to reason that fewer rangers and more visits would downgrade the maintenance and, worse, compromise public safety at the parks.

Reporters and photographers working on the IowaWatch review, including from The Gazette, visited more than 30 state parks from August through November and generally found that maintenance appeared to be holding up, with a few exceptions. The visits occurred after any facility closure related to COVID-19 was lifted. Several parks that were seriously damaged in the Aug. 10 derecho were not visited after the storm for review.

In some ways, the decline in park rangers speaks to a larger issue about Iowa’s parks and the commitment to maintaining them as pristine places of recreation and self-renewal.

Asked whether the surging attendance could overtax the parks’ resources, Coffelt said that “it has the potential.”

One park, overwhelmed

The decrease in park rangers was in sharp relief earlier this year when amid the pandemic, hundreds of people descended on one of Iowa’s bigger state parks, Lake Macbride in Johnson County, the weekend of June 6-7.

The crowds were so large that the Iowa DNR had to temporarily close the entrance because beachgoers had overwhelmed the staff. The park’s two full-time rangers couldn’t handle all the visitors.

Tom Basten, the southeast district supervisor for state parks, said all parking lots and boat ramps were full. Rangers from other parks were dispatched to Lake Macbride to help.

“This year, we’ve seen a renewed interest in people wanting to enjoy the outdoors,” Basten said. “Our numbers were way up.”

Although other rangers pitched in, that left some other parks in Southeast Iowa uncovered by an officer, he said in an interview with KCRG-TV.

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The June weekend took a tragic turn when, on June 7, a woman in a kayak fell into the water and could not be found before dark. The next day, authorities recovered the body and identified the drowning victim as Makeda Scott, 21, of Iowa City.

Duties are shifting for park rangers

Park rangers often liken their job to running a small city. Their qualifications include having a commercial driver’s license; certifications in first aid, water and wastewater system operation and pesticide operation, and the ability to operate and maintain specialty tools and equipment.

Rangers also must be able to manage a budget, hire vendors and train seasonal workers.

They must also complete the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy training program.

For decades, park rangers nationwide have gradually taken on a larger law enforcement and public safety role.

“The traditional role of a park ranger solely being the ‘camper’s friend’ appears to be in the distance as urban crime is moving into the rural and park settings,” Todd M. Caudill, a law enforcement training instructor in Kentucky, wrote in an article for the Park Law Enforcement Association.

Five years ago, the Iowa DNR purchased AR-15 rifles, a civilian cousin to the military M-16, for park rangers, who also patrol with pistols at their side and shotguns in their vehicles.

“We want to make sure our staff has the right equipment so that they could be prepared for situations,” Coffelt said in an interview last summer.

In October, the department also voted to hire California-based Visual Labs Inc. to equip its certified peace officers with body cameras. “Due to the unexpected nature involved in police encounters, officers and citizens should have the content of interactions available if needed,” the department said.

To date, despite the increase in arms, there have been few public reports of rangers dealing with major violent crimes such as killings, assaults, robberies or rape. Rangers say the most common violent threats in Iowa stem from alcohol-fueled disputes or domestic violence in the parks.

Generally, rangers are more likely to deal with vandalism, reckless boating, drug abuse and illegal fishing or hunting. Rangers also spend time helping to maintain clean, sanitary and safe conditions.

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They also tend to drownings, such as the death at Lake Macbride, and fatal falls within the park system. In January 2017, for example, a 63-year-old Ames man fell 60 feet to his death from a scenic overlook at Ledges State Park in Boone County. It happened while he was participating in a state-sponsored “First Day Hike.”

Financial decline amid growing attendance

Even as Iowans have poured into state parks this year to enjoy the outdoors, the park system — and the natural resources agency that encompasses it — have been struggling for years with stagnant or declining funding.

Kevin Szcodronski, a retired State Parks Bureau chief who now tinkers at his clock repair shop in Ankeny, said a lack of financial support has hampered the parks for years.

“It’s an ongoing story with parks, not only in Iowa, but nationwide,” he said.

Missouri’s state park ranger program, for example, was staffed by 46 officers in 2019, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. That meant one employee per 401,784 visitors that year.

Like many large government agencies, the Iowa DNR’s budget is a bit of a fiduciary Rubik’s Cube — not easy to sort out quickly. The department’s combined annual budget is just over $400 million and it is financed by various revenue streams, including fees, licenses and permits and federal money.

Only a small portion of the total budget comes from the state’s general fund. But that piece, set each year by the governor and Legislature, helps finance the operations of the state parks and forests.

The Iowa DNR’s budget reached a high-water mark of $22 million in fiscal 2009 but steadily has declined since, to an estimated $11.9 million in fiscal 2020.

Rep. Charles Isenhart, D-Dubuque, said the state’s general fund appropriations to state park operations in fiscal 2019 was $5.7 million — less than the 2010 level of $6.6 million. Adjusted for inflation, it represents a 26 percent decrease. The amount rose to $6.2 million in 2020.

Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, said the general fund appropriations to the Iowa DNR are “too low and have been too low for a number of years.”

“It’s pretty minimal,” said Rozenboom, chairman of the Senate’s natural resources and environment committee.

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission sounded the alarm in January 2018. It warned the state Legislature that “future reductions in general fund allocations may compromise the DNR’s ability to effectively carry out its mission.”

Amid recent budget reductions, the Iowa DNR closed its forestry bureau, eliminated several positions and froze openings for dozens more. The agency says it can’t even afford to check trees for its Big Tree program, which locates and recognizes the biggest trees of every species in Iowa. Volunteers have kept the program alive.

Empty positions and no date to fill them

Isenhart said that every Jan. 1 he asks the Iowa DNR for a list of vacant positions. This year’s list totaled 100, including two park rangers and a park manager. The date to fill those three positions? “Unknown,” the state list said. That was also the estimated date to fill 67 percent of all 100 vacancies.

“They just don’t have the resources to fill them,” said Isenhart, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee and ranking member of the agriculture and natural resources appropriations subcommittee.

He added the Legislature used to pass a salary bill every year to finance increased costs of retaining experienced staff. That hasn’t happened in about a decade, Isenhart said.

Staffing shortages have prompted the parks bureau to “cobble together some unusual solutions,” Isenhart said.

Earlier this summer, while Isenhart was hiking in an Eastern Iowa park, a ranger told him that he and other rangers had to spend 10 percent of their time helping at Lake Macbride.

That not only leaves the rangers’ assigned parks uncovered at times, but also increases “windshield” time — the time spent driving from park to park instead of patrolling parks.

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At many parks, the only assigned full-time Iowa DNR employee is the park manager. Park managers are not certified peace officers.

James Ohl of Muscatine, who retired in 2014 as a ranger at Wildcat Den State Park, said for all of their other skills, park managers lack the training and tools to handle serious law enforcement situations.

“All they have is a can of pepper spray and a pair of handcuffs,” Ohl said. “Really, it’s a pretty dangerous situation for a park manager.”

For some tasks, volunteers have come forward to fill staffing gaps, such as park maintenance or greeting campers. Many park visitor centers and museums also are run by volunteer groups. But COVID-19 has hampered reopenings because the volunteers typically are older and in higher-risk health groups, the department said.

The funding crunch has left some experts and park officials wondering whether Iowa leaders fully appreciate the value that well-managed, well-staffed parks bring to the state.

Szcodronski, the retired parks bureau chief, said too many people perceive state parks as a “luxury,” not an essential, compared with other programs competing for state dollars.

The paradox is that more Iowans than ever are craving the tonic of nature.

If more than 16 million people end up visiting state parks by year-end, it will equate to 12 times the record attendance of the 2019 Iowa State Fair or fill Kinnick Stadium 231 times.

“COVID-19 is really showing people the value of state parks, and how they are such special places,” Szodronski said.

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At idyllic Backbone State Park in Eastern Iowa’s Delaware County, Dave Sunne, the lone ranger there, has seen this year’s rush to Iowa’s great outdoors.

He was outside the park office on the Friday before Labor Day, getting ready for a busy weekend, when a young man from Dubuque drove up and asked if any campsites were open.

“I’m afraid we’re all booked up,” Sunne told him. “But there’s a private campground just down the road … He’s got some spots.”

The man thanked Sunne and went on his way.

“Oh, man,” Sunne said. “We’ve been full — every campsite, every weekend all summer long … I’ve been here for 23 years and we’ve never been full every weekend — never.”

Sunne, dressed in his park ranger green pants and khaki shirt, is a firm believer that the mere presence of a uniformed officer is a “huge deterrent” to would-be lawbreakers.

“There’s not as many of us now as they’re used to be,” he said. “And things are a little scarier out there in the world right now than they ever have been.”

IowaWatch checks out the state parks

Journalists working on the IowaWatch review visited 32 of the state parks run by the Iowa DNR.

Many showed signs they were regularly maintained: painted shelters, mowed lawns, clear signage for trails and other directions, and working bathrooms. In some parks, work is done by volunteer groups.

A few parks showed some neglect.

The review visits began in August and ran through November, avoiding the weeks in the spring when parks substantially closed due to COVID-19.

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Okamanpeedan State Park, which sits on the lake of the same name in Emmet County in Northwest Iowa, displayed some need for more care.

Of two shelters, the ceiling of one was bloated and coming down. The shelter was dirty and two sides had cement floors taken over by plants. There was a dead bat on the floor.

The second shelter was not open in August. Grime covered the windows, making it difficult for sunlight to come in. The floor was dirty and there was a picnic table that needed to be repainted and cleaned.

The picnic tables were among the worst IowaWatch saw.

The bathroom was closed, according to a sign, but the door was left unlocked, so the COVID-19 closure was not in effect.

Rice Lake is a 15-acre state park in north central Iowa and is one of the oldest of Iowa’s state parks, dedicated in 1924.

It showed a few signs of overgrowth on Aug. 2, 2020, during a visit by an IowaWatch reporter.

This project is a partnership between IowaWatch — the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism and the Iowa Newspaper Foundation. IowaWatch led the writing and reporting with state parks visited by Danielle Gehr, a former IowaWatch intern and now an Ames Tribune reporter; John Naughton, a freelance writer and former Des Moines Register reporter; Emery Styron, a freelance journalist; and Erin Jordan, Lee Hermiston and Sarah Watson from The Gazette.

The writer is freelance writer Rick Jost, who spent time in his career as a Quad City Times reporter, a Des Moines Register business editor and copy editor, a Meredith Corp. editor, and most recently the editor of Iowa Magazine.

The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch is a nonprofit, news website that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. Read more or support our journalism at IowaWatch.org.

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