DNR called upon to restore full-time park ranger to Yellow River State Forest

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A petition is calling on the Iowa DNR to restore a park ranger to full-time status at Yellow River State Forest near Harpers Ferry. In May, the full-time ranger was reduced to 25 percent and reassigned to Volga River State Recreation Area in Fayette County for the remaining 75 percent. (Submitted photo)

By Audrey Posten

 

A petition is calling on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to restore a park ranger to full-time status at Yellow River State Forest near Harpers Ferry. In May, the full-time ranger was reduced to 25 percent and reassigned to Volga River State Recreation Area in Fayette County for the remaining 75 percent—a move the Friends of Yellow River State Forest group says could impact visitor safety and the protection of forest resources.

“It all happened very fast. The park ranger himself was given three to four weeks’ notice until the change was made,” said Kelli Boylen, president of the Friends of Yellow River State Forest, which created the petition several weeks ago. 

She helped start the organization nearly 2.5 years ago to enhance Yellow River State Forest. “I never thought I would have to fight the DNR to keep it protected,” she said.

According to Alex Murphy, communications director for the DNR, the transfer was a result of DNR Parks, Forests and Preserves Bureau management analyzing statewide and regional staffing needs. 

“Several recent retirements created vacancies in areas that have historically benefitted from a more consistent park ranger presence. In this case, the Volga River State Recreation Area needed a park ranger and the closest park ranger was the Yellow River State Forest position. Reassigning positions to best serve visitors and manage the resource is common practice throughout the state,” said Murphy.

He added that Yellow River was the only state forest with a park ranger, and that there are four state foresters, a park manager, seasonal resource technicians and campground hosts also assigned to the 8,900-acre state forest.

But Boylen said those details don’t jive. Although Yellow River currently has seasonal employees who normally perform duties like mowing and reservations, the park ranger and one forester make up the staff.

“There are not four foresters,” she stated. “The forester has nothing to do with the campgrounds. He manages the forest. If there’s a UTV riding in the forest, he can’t do anything about it. He can’t write them a ticket.”

“We also don’t have a park manager, and have never had a park manager,” she added. “Then we were told the park manager is shared with the nearest state park. Another lie.”

Boylen said the DNR also says Volga River State Recreation Area receives more visitors. With no metrics or traffic counters, she believes those numbers can be subjective. Camping numbers are more indicative.

“Yellow River has 141 campsites to Volga’s 84,” Boylen said. “Yellow River’s campsites, last year, were full nearly every weekend from May to October. Even if both places were completely full, our numbers were higher.”

Compared to Iowa’s three other major state forests, she said Yellow River is also unique: “Combined, they have less than half the visitors and campsites than Yellow River.”

Yellow River has had a park ranger since the 1980s, when then-representative Roger Halvorson fought for a position to help protect the spot from city motorcycle gangs that, in the 1970s and 1980s, would take over the campground and drive away other visitors.

Without a full-time park ranger, Boylen fears the consequences. 

She lives near the forest, which is home to several critical plant, insect and animal species, and has already seen an increase in the number of UTVs. One camper chose to set up in a parking lot because they did not want to pay the $12 per night fee.

“I’ve been told by other visitors that people aren’t respecting the quiet hours, and on our friends Facebook page, people have commented they will not be coming to Yellow River as a family because there’s no one there,” Boylen said. “It’s not that people are going to stop coming. It’s that the families are going to stop coming. It’s going to be a completely different demographic, if you know you can party and do what you want and no one is going to stop you.” 

Because of limited man power, she said the Allamakee County Sheriff’s Office will only respond to Yellow River in cases of true emergencies. In cases of weather events, like flash flooding on June 26, she explained that emergency management alerted the local fire department to help with evacuations—a duty the park ranger would perform.

“But no one knew who they were supposed to contact with the DNR. Those plans had not been set up,” Boylen remarked.

“Is it going to take someone getting hurt?” she asked. “That’s not how it should be.”

Murphy, the DNR communications director, said the DNR feels confident this transfer will benefit the users of Iowa’s state parks, and that Yellow River State Forest will remain a safe and friendly destination to visit. 

“If for some reason that changes, the DNR will evaluate the situation and determine if more or different staffing levels are needed,” he stated. “DNR strongly encourages any park, forest and preserve visitor to call 911 if they feel unsafe or to report a crime.”

State Rep. Anne Osmundson, whose House District 56 includes Yellow River, said she’s spoken with the DNR, and officials insist they have the situation under control.

“I suggest problems arising at Yellow River State Forest be reported to the DNR so the department has good information to assess needs,” she added.

Boylen doesn’t agree with the DNR’s “passive management approach.”

“The DNR’s mission is to ‘conserve and enhance our natural resources, ensuring a legacy for future generations.’ You can’t take a passive management approach and do that. It contradicts itself,” she said.

According to Boylen, it’s especially disheartening for the Friends of Yellow River State Forest, who have raised and reinvested about $70,000, including horse hitching posts, gravel for trails, picnic tables and fire rings, printing maps and brochures and organizing a spring trail run and more than 20 other programs.

“As a friends group, all the things we do to invest time and money and effort into the state forest, none of it matters if there’s not someone there to protect it,” she said. “That’s why the friends group itself has decided to speak up as an organization against the DNR and their decision on this. Having a park ranger is connected to everything we do.”

The group hopes the petition, which now has over 1,700 signatures, will raise enough awareness to show the DNR and state legislators that the public wants a full-time park ranger at Yellow River.

“You have people who have camped there for generations, and you have day use users who are new, and they all see the need,” Boylen said.

More information about the petition and the friends group can be found at the “Friends of Yellow River State Forest, Harpers Ferry IA” Facebook page or friendsofyellowriverstateforest.org.

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