CORONAVIRUS

More campers during COVID-19 brings more money for Iowa DNR

Staff at state parks hit by the Aug. 10 derecho still doing tree work

Tyler Starks, a highway technician associate at Iowa Department of Transportation, moves debris Nov. 19 to the burn pile
Tyler Starks, a highway technician associate at Iowa Department of Transportation, moves debris Nov. 19 to the burn pile at Palisades-Kepler State Park in Mount Vernon. The Iowa DOT loaned the loader and an employee to assist with cleanup that was beyond the capabilities of the Iowa Department of Natural Resource’s equipment and staffing. The park has been closed since August, when the derecho damaged many trees within the park. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Short on vacation options because of COVID-19, Iowans flocked to state park campgrounds last summer and boosted camping revenue by 33 percent over the same period in 2019.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources brought in nearly $2.3 million in camping fees July 1 through October 30, up from $1.7 million in 2019.

“The parks were busier than they’ve ever been and they were more necessary,” said Todd Coffelt, the State Parks, Forests and Preserves Bureau chief.

Revenue would have been even higher if nine state parks — including Lake Macbride and Palisades-Kepler — hadn’t had full or partial closures after the Aug. 10 derecho felled trees and damaged buildings.

Iowa’s state park system, which celebrated 100 years earlier this year, has about 4,700 campsites, 75 percent of which are reserved online up to three months in advance. The remaining 25 percent are available for walk-up, first-come, first-served camping.

Usually the camping season is mid-April to mid-October, but this year, because of COVID-19 restrictions, state park campgrounds didn’t open until early May. But when they did open, Iowans showed up.

“People came in droves, which created all sorts of other challenges,” Coffelt said.

Thad Overturf, in his third year as a campground host at Backbone State Park, near Dundee, told The Gazette in July he had helped more than a dozen campers with brand-new recreational vehicles.

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“Those are folks I’ve specifically helped with their first very time camping,” he said.

Because of COVID-19, hosts were required to do daily deep cleaning of bathrooms that involved spraying hard surfaces with bleach water and letting it sit for 10 minutes, replacing all paper products, scrubbing floors, sinks, toilets and showers.

State camping revenue has held steady in recent years, despite the Iowa DNR reducing the number of sites at some campgrounds.

“We had 5,100 (sites) in 2013 and now we have 4,559,” Coffelt said. “When we renovate to increase the size of the site and improve amenities and have access to the campground, we lose 10 to 20 percent of sites. It’s a response to today’s (larger) vehicles and camping units.”

State camping revenue is deposited into the Iowa DNR’s conservation fund, which pays for staffing and operations of state parks — so the money will help pay for derecho recovery.

Storm recovery

After the storm, parts of Wapsipinicon, Palisades-Kepler and Lake Macbride state parks, as well as the Pleasant Creek State Recreation Area, were closed. The Wapsi and Pleasant Creek campgrounds reopened before the end of the season, but the Macbride campground had more damage, including broken electrical posts at campsites.

Many of Macbride’s trails are now open.

A crew of about 20 park rangers, foresters and volunteers worked at Palisades Nov. 20, cleaning up debris and cutting down trees. The park is not expected to reopen until the spring, Ranger Jim Hansen said.

“It will be a longer, slower process to get private tree services to get the bigger hangers in the treetops,” he said. “We’ll need to do a tree assessment to make sure trees are safe before we open. There’s not a lot of use out here between now and mid-March.”

The storm caused minor damage to the lodge roof and the walkway around the building, Hansen said. But the stone used by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s to build the lodge has stayed intact.

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“It’s a huge building and some of that will take time,” he said. “That typically opens May 1. We really hope that all is ready.”

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

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