Government

Iowa's Backbone State Park gets $650K from Leona Helmsley's trust. Yes, that Leona Helmsley.

Grant will restore Depression-era stone buildings before Backbone's centennial in 2020

The boat house is seen Nov. 19 from the shore of Backbone Lake at Backbone State Park. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
The boat house is seen Nov. 19 from the shore of Backbone Lake at Backbone State Park. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has received a $650,000 grant from the trust of two New York hoteliers to help restore historic buildings at Backbone State Park near Strawberry Point.

The money from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust will be used to restore and conserve Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps buildings as part of Backbone’s 100th anniversary next year.

“This is a fantastic opportunity,” said Todd Coffelt, DNR State Parks, Preserves and Forests Bureau chief. “They (the trust) extended an invitation to us and it fell in line with the priorities of getting Backbone ready for the centennial celebration.”

Leona Helmsley, who died in 2007, famously left $12 million in her will to her pet Maltese dog. A court reduced that to $2 million, with the rest of the money going to the couple’s charitable trust

-

Earlier this fall, the state’s Natural Resource Commission approved a $565,818 contract to restore Backbone’s iconic limestone and wood structures, which include the beach lodge, boat building, auditorium and three shelters, The Gazette reported in November.

The project involves cleaning, tuckpointing, replacing rotten materials and re-roofing the structures. New stain and sealer will be applied and new windows installed, the DNR reported. The agency also will replace concrete footings and sidewalks leading to the buildings.

The Helmsley trust grant will pay for the Backbone project, allowing state infrastructure funds to go to other state park projects, Coffelt said.

Backbone was dedicated as Iowa’s first state park in 1920. Early naturalists protected the area because of its diverse flora and unique geological formations, including a high-ridge outcropping known as the “Devil’s Backbone,” which gives the park its name.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The park is beloved for rock climbing and trout fishing, but Backbone Lake has perennial problems with poor water quality.

The lake, created in the 1930s by damming the Maquoketa River, had swim advisories for 13 of 15 weeks this past summer because of high levels of bacteria in the water.

Backbone Park Ranger Dave Sunne said in September the 50-acre lake is a drainage spot for 86,000 acres of farmland.

The DNR determined in the early 2000s soil retention ponds were needed in the Backbone Lake watershed to reduce runoff, but officials did not know whether ponds would hold water because of the porous topography, Sunne said. There also was skepticism private landowners would pay for conservation measures, such as wetlands, buffer strips or cover crops, he said.

Coffelt said the Helmsley grant is just for infrastructure and will not cover water quality projects.

At first glance, it’s hard to connect the dots between Leona and Harry Helmsley, who built a New York real estate empire in the 1970s and 1980s, and Iowa’s state parks.

Leona Helmsley, dubbed the “Queen of Mean” for her management practices, served time in prison for tax evasion in 1989. When she died in 2007, Helmsley famously left $12 million to her pet Maltese dog. A court reduced that to $2 million, with the rest of the money going to the couple’s charitable trust.

The trust, worth more than $5 billion in 2015, now is governed by trustees that include Walter Panzirer, Helmsley’s grandson through her first marriage to Jay Panzirer. the Capitol-Journal, a Pierre, S.D., newspaper, reported in 2015. Walter Panzirer lives in Pierre and has helped turn the trust’s work to seven Midwest states, including Iowa.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The trust has committed more than $2.6 billion since 2008 for a variety of charitable purposes, including rural health care initiatives, the Iowa DNR reported. To date, the program has awarded more than $416 million to organizations and initiatives in the Upper Midwest.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.