Wow, what a year this has been! It's hard to believe we're about to bid farewell to 2023 and ring in another new year. What are your plans for getting outside more in the coming year? 

As always, we're here to help you get outside. Here's some of what we've been working on lately. 

19 acres added to Hickory Bend

Hickory Bend MapWe recently cut the ribbon on 19.4 acres of land immediately adjacent to Hickory Bend Conservation Area. This land is known habitat for endangered species of bats and it will add to the 250+ acres of public hunting area that Hickory Bend already offered. Plus, with it's location along Flint Creek, this acquisition further protects priority habitat for many other species and offers water quality and flood retention benefits. 

Iowa is public land poor compared to almost every other state in the nation. Acquisitions such as these have immesurable ecological, social, and economic benefits to communities such as ours. This purchase was made completely with funds from non-profit wildlife organizations and a state Wildlife Habitat Stamp Grant, monies for which are generated completely from hunting license sales. 

From the outside looking in, it probably seems like this happened quickly. But in reality, the work to make this happen dates back several years. The fundraising alone has been ongoing for more than two years. So from our end, it feels really good to have finally cut that ribbon. A big THANK YOU to all the organizations that stepped up to make the purchase possible (Pheasants Forever, Whitetails Unlimited, and National Wild Turkey Federation) and to all the people (you!) that support those organizations. 

Big Hollow improvements coming in 2024

Speaking of long-term ongoing projects, we've been working for about three years now on the next phase of development at Big Hollow Recreation Area. Using donations received from community members and organizations, we were able to secure a federal grant which will allow us to add 18 new campsites just west of the existing RV campground. We will also pave the fishing jetty below the campground and create a paved walkway from it to the kayak launch dock, one of the most popular amenities in the park. We will also put sidewalks around the perimeter of the beach to improve accessibility there. 

We also received a separate grant to construct two new sediment ponds just west of the campground. These ponds will capture sediment that would otherwise go into the lake. This is part of the overall watershed improvement effort aimed at improving water quality in Big Hollow Lake.

We've been navigating the federal grant administration for several months now and just received word that our final authorization should come somewhere around the turn of the calendar year. As soon as we have that, we will let bids for the electrical work and rock hauling for the campground and the concrete work at the lake accesses. Our (overly?) ambitious plan is to have the campground open by Memorial Day weekend and the rest of the work done before the end of summer. But a lot of that depends on contractor and material availability which is out of our control. Nevertheless, we're pushing forward. Keep an eye here for future updates.

New "Cabin" available for rent soon

Ranger House Soon you will be able to rent the "Ranger House" cabin, a 3-bedroom house with a private pond access, beautiful outdoor area, and two-car garage in the heart of Big Hollow Recreation Area. We have finishing touches to put on it yet this year to get it ready, but we plan to make it available for rent sometime in January. Rentals will be made online at

Last August, our long-serving Park Ranger/Operations Supervisor Pat "Rock-n-Roll Ranger" Rogge retired after 33 years with Des Moines County Conservation. While working here, he lived in the residence at Big Hollow Recreation Area. After much discussion as to what to do with the house, the Conservation Board decided to make it a rental cabin. We've been working on it as time has allowed this fall. The team from Midwest Realty Group held a volunteer workday there and completely updated the flooring and interior paint. And recently we housed an Americorps NCCC team there. They painted the exterior and completed some other work on the place. We're nearly ready to go public with it. 

There are other repairs/updates we want to do to the place (it's a 1970's modular home built on a walk-out basement foundation) including complete remodels of both bathrooms (yes, it has two!) and the kitchen. But in the interest of time and budget, we'll do those big-ticket renovations in the coming years. 

Watch here or on our Facebook page for the big announcement of when we open it to reservations. 

Admin office moving to Starr's Cave Nature Center (maybe)

Starr's Cave Nature CenterFor at least a few years now, we've been looking at ways of consolidating our offices. Currently, our field staff works out of the maintenance shops at Big Hollow, our education staff works out of Starr's Cave Nature Center, and our administrative staff (Director and Administrative Assistant) work out of our main office in West Burlington. This situation is inefficient in several ways. But building new office space is expensive and relocating an entire segment of a department's operations is time-consuming. So what to do?

Ultimately, our big dream is to eventually build a comprehensive facility at Big Hollow, our main park, and house all our staff there. But at this point, that's merely a dream. We have looked into no less than half a dozen different options for creating office space and moving at least the admin staff to Big Hollow and nothing has proven feasible or cost-effective. 

Recently, we've explored the option of moving our admin office to Starr's Cave Nature Center and we feel like that is probably the best option for at least partially combining operations. We haven't fully committed to the move yet, but we are closing in on making that decision. The Conservation Board authorized proceeding with the move at its regular meeting on December 6. 

Creating office space there for the Director and Administrative Assistant provides a couple beneftits. One, it consolidates offices from three to two. Two, operationally, it will help with communication and coordination between admin and education staff and reduces drive time between the department headquarters and the field headquarters at Big Hollow. And finally, it will allow us to keep the nature center open to the public more often. Currently, we have to close the building when our education staff is out teaching programs, which they do regularly (they deliver about 300 programs annually, on average). By housing admin staff there, the nature center would become our department headquarters and we would keep the doors open during working hours throughout the week. 

The biggest drawback is that we're very limited on space there at Starr's Cave. Our current admin office is something like 2,400 square feet. Granted, we have a fair bit of unused space there, but as most of our basements and garages can attest, life expands to fill the space available. At the nature center, we'll likely have only about 400 square feet in which to create the necessary office space, and half of that can only be done by displacing one storage area. We can come up with some additional footage for storage throughout the facility, but there's only so much room available. No matter how we design it, the move will mean a significant downsizing. Is all that loss of space, plus the remodeling expense, worth the operational benefits? That's what we're wrestling with now. 

Suffice to say, we're doing what we can to operate at the highest level of efficiency. We're constantly exploring new ideas and weighing options. Some ideas are good, some not so much. But you can't improve, you can't innovate, and you don't move forward if you don't dream, if you don't explore, if you don't weigh options. We want to always be moving forward. 

That's it for this update. Thanks for reading this far. Have a happy new year and we look forward to seeing you out in the parks in 2024!

published Wednesday, December 13, 2023

More Blogs