Otter Creek construction halted until Oct. 2022

Motion to hire naturalist intern passes

Tama County Conservation technician and park ranger Dustin Horne gives the monthly maintenance report to the conservation board during the board's April 6 meeting held in Otter Creek Nature Center. -Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

During the April 6 Tama County Board of Conservation meeting, Conservation Director Stephen Mayne updated the board on the Otter Creek Lake restoration project, telling board members the project was on hold for the foreseeable future.

As part of the restoration project – which was announced last spring – Otter Creek Lake & Park was closed to the general public beginning on October 1, 2021. The lake was drained beginning in July as part of the project preparation.

Plans for the 70-acre lake’s restoration include the removal of sediment deposited in the lake over time, shoreline habitat and angler access improvements, rehabilitation of existing ponds and wetlands, construction of new sediment ponds, and improvements to park amenities including the beach and playground.

Those plans are now on hold until at least next October, Mayne said, due to a cascade of factors beginning with a required archeological survey that was unable to be completed in time due to frozen ground and a backlog in the state archaeologist’s office.

Without the archeological survey completed, trees cannot be legally cleared, but any trees which must be cut as part of the project can only be taken between October 15 and March 31 of any given year due to the migration patterns of the federally endangered bat species Indiana bat which is present in Iowa from April through October.

Missing the bat’s April 1 deadline has effectively felled the project’s progress for the time being.

Mayne said Rachel Contracting based in Minnesota, which was the high bidder for the restoration project, is demobilizing their equipment but has indicated to Mayne they will return once the calendar gets closer to October 15.

“What that date is, we don’t know yet,” Mayne said. “It’s all dependent on weather.”

Later in the meeting during informal floor discussion – in light of the lake restoration project being on hold while the park is still closed – the idea of offering weekend or weeknight activities at Otter Creek to the public during the summer months was brought up.

Discussion ensued around opening the park up completely while posting signs warning to stay out of the lakebed and silt ponds but that idea was mostly rejected due to safety concerns, particularly as those concerns relate to young children.

Board chair Bryan Wacha felt that by June with drier conditions prevailing, the park could be open on a case by case basis, allowing visitors to utilize the park’s trails but not the drained lake.

Ideas for programs included a weeknight family-centered campfire with marshmallows and hot dogs as well Saturday programs that would allow visitors to frequent the nature center’s display room in order to view the diorama.

“People like simple things in life,” board member Carolyn Adolphs said, who was in support of opening the park up partially this summer for special programming.

“Being closed for an entire summer, we’re going to be out of sight, out of mind,” Wacha said.

As it was not a published agenda item, no action was yet taken on the idea to reopen the park partially to the public this summer.

Hiring update

Mayne provided a hiring update to the board. He is in the process of scheduling interviews for the position of a full time park officer with five candidates in the pool. Interviews were set to take place Tuesday, April 12.

Maybe shared there had been zero applicants for the park ranger intern position. If a hire is not made soon the job will need to be reposted.

The board then moved on to addressing the hiring of a naturalist intern which would be a new position for the county.

The job description for the naturalist intern includes assisting the naturalist with organizing, developing, and coordinating quality environmental educational programs, while also assisting with the development and promotion of county conservation through its website and social media pages.

During the March board meeting, a motion was made by board member Adolphs to approve the new naturalist intern position but it failed to garner a second among the board members present and was subsequently tabled.

After listening to Tama County Naturalist Brendan Kelly explain to the group the need for such a position including working to keep county conservation in the public eye during the Otter Creek Lake & Park closure by way of a newsletter, board member John Kennan made a motion to hire a naturalist intern for the summer.

The motion received a second from Adolphs and subsequently passed with board members Nathan Wrage and Allan Atchison voting against the motion.

In other business…

Under the maintenance report, conservation technician and park ranger Dustin Horne shared with the board upcoming plans for prescribed burns. The burn plan includes more than 170 county conservation acres this season for which the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Tama Fire Dept. will provide assistance.

Under new business, Horne shared the 1974 John Deere 4030 tractor county conservation uses to run at least half of its implements did not start up when taking it out of winterization recently. The tractor was shooting diesel and oil out of its exhaust. “It runs half our implements,” Horne said. “If we don’t fix it we got all these implements sitting around that I can’t run.” A quote from Van Wall Equipment in Toledo to fix the tractor came in at over $6,000. Discussion ensued as to whether Horne could instead find someone to replace the tractor’s engine for much less than the Van Wall quote. Board members asked Horne to further explore the options for fixing the tractor.

Under the director’s report, Mayne shared county conservation recently received a Tama County Community Foundation grant for $4,000 to replace playground equipment at T.F. Clark Park which is located northeast of Traer in Buckingham township. Grant funds will fully fund the playground project.