Otter Creek Park and Lake reopens to foot traffic

Possible campground reopening tabled until May 12

Tama County Conservation Director Stephen Mayne (left) speaks during the Wednesday, May 4, county conservation board meeting at Otter Creek Nature Center in rural Toledo. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

For a monthly county board meeting that is usually sparsely attended, the regular May meeting of the Tama County Board of Conservation appeared to be the hottest ticket in the county this past Wednesday as more than 30 Tama County citizens – mostly from the Tama, Toledo, and Chelsea areas – were in attendance to request that Otter Creek Lake and Park campground be reopened to the public.

The entire park was closed to the general public due to safety concerns back on October 1, 2021, in anticipation of the lake restoration project which was scheduled to begin last winter.

But following a series of unanticipated setbacks including a delay in an archaeological study that precedes the final permitting of the project and a federal law that protects the endangered Indiana bat – a species which is present in Iowa from April through October – progress on Otter Creek Lake’s restoration was effectively halted last month.

As news of the project’s temporary shutdown spread, a group of concerned citizens led by Butch Kupka and Barb Jordan – both Toledo residents – began organizing in order to formally ask the board to reopen Otter Creek Park’s campground during the halt in construction.

Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, members of the public including Kupka and Jordan contacted various entities involved in the Otter Creek lake restoration with their questions including a representative with Rachel Contracting which was awarded the bid for the construction, as well as the Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources’ (DNR) lake restoration program coordinator George Antoniou.

The Iowa DNR is effectively acting as the primary contractor for the lake restoration project as 75 percent of lake restoration funds come from the state coffers while individual counties pick up the remaining tab.

Tama County uses funds from the land acquisition fund – a fund which is replenished at the end of each fiscal year using whatever funds remain unspent by county conservation – to cover its portion of the lake restoration, Tama County Conservation Director Stephen Mayne said.

Lake restoration update

Prior to the agenda item addressing the possibility of reopening the campground, Mayne provided the board with an update on the lake restoration under old business.

Since the board’s last meeting in early April – during which time Mayne announced the temporary halt in construction – Mayne received a call from the Iowa DNR’s project engineer for the restoration indicating that Rachel Contracting had experienced a change in their summer scheduling and would likely be able to mobilize in June if the necessary permit was received.

“We have two essential holdups,” Mayne told his board. “The first holdup is the archeological study that needs to be done … on the north side of the park … once that gets completed then we can take that study and turn that into the Army Corps of Engineers to apply for the permit to start working … So the contractor is essentially waiting for that permit to come through.”

In terms of the Indiana bat, Mayne said the law still applies but the Iowa DNR had communicated with Mayne in the weeks following the April board meeting that they could bring out the state forester to identify trees that legally can be removed versus those trees that cannot be removed while remaining in compliance with the federal law.

In a follow-up interview with the Telegraph on Friday, May 6, Mayne reiterated the main talking points of the lake restoration update as it was provided during the May 4 board meeting.

Camper concerns

As part of their public comments to the board, those in attendance concerned with the campground remaining closed cited a lake restoration that took place in Story County at Hickory Grove Park beginning with a partial lake drawdown in August of 2018. Members of the public said the Story County park remained open – including the campgrounds – during the restoration.

In the follow-up interview with the Telegraph, Mayne said the Hickory Grove lake restoration was different from Otter Creek Lake’s restoration as camping access at Hickory Grove comes off a different road than the lake access road.

“The contractors [at Hickory Grove Park] came in on a different entrance … [but] there were areas of that park that were shut down to the general public,” Mayne said. “If you keep the contractors on one side of the park and keep the campers on the other side without any interference, it would be very feasible.”

Otter Creek Park and Lake only has one access point – it is both the entrance and the exit, Mayne said – setting up a scenario wherein contractors and campers would be using the same roads.

By shutting down public access to the park during the lake restoration, the board was attempting to avoid this possible dangerous scenario, Mayne further said.

Other reasons cited by Mayne and members of the board during the Wednesday meeting as to why they were not necessarily in favor of reopening the campground on a temporary basis included an exposed high voltage line that operates the park’s emergency sirens located on the west side of the park – a line that was dug up as part of the restoration; no access to water for the dump station since water was being supplied by the lake; the current winterized state of most of the park’s facilities; a shortage of staff with no applicants in the queue for any of the four seasonal positions; and finally, the time freed up while Otter Creek Park & Lake is closed that would allow staff to address needs at other Tama County-owned parks and outdoor areas – needs they cite as having long been neglected.

Conservation tech Dustin Horne said it would take about two weeks to get the facilities ready for camping – during which time the timeline for construction would remain fluid, Mayne added, with the final permit arriving any day and the possibility of Rachel Contracting remobilizing.

The public in attendance responded to most of the reasons Mayne and members of the board provided for remaining closed as unacceptable – going so far as to say they would not need water to camp.

Even if they could get water supplied to the dump station, Mayne said, the county would need to apply for a new permit in order to access the station’s manhole as part of the conservation department’s OSHA compliance. They would also need a new tripod to access the manhole and new testing equipment – as well as staff training.

As members of the public spoke, several expressed their sincere desire to camp at Otter Creek – even on just a day-to-day, temporary basis – including Jordan of Toledo.

“Otter Creek has always been a place for our family and friends to gather and socialize and enjoy the outdoors, “Jordan said. “Walking trails or just sitting around the campfire is a way that many of us just get away … to relax from a busy week.”

“A very good friend of mine always told me and many others,” Jordan continued, “you cannot plan for ‘what if.’ So we are here to ask the board to make a decision to open Otter Creek back up on what you know right now and not ‘what if’.”

“My concern is the staff time,” Mayne responded. “How can I ask my staff to spend their time best, by [reopening the campground] – believe me, I would love you guys to come out here to camp, I really would – I just have to ask, is this truly feasible and is this a good service to the taxpayers of Tama County?”

“I appreciate the enthusiasm for camping out here,” board member Carolyn Adolphs said. “With not knowing when anything is going to be done, I hate for [staff] to spend two weeks to get [everything ready] – because they have other things to do, too.”

Adolphs went on to describe the work that was planned for this summer at T.F. Clark Park located in northern Tama County in Buckingham Township including a long overdue playground upgrade.

“[T.F. Clark Park] has been ignored for years. That was something they would probably be working on,” Adolphs said. “I really do appreciate that you love being outside … but it’s not as simple as just ‘we want to camp’.”

Adolphs later told Jordan part of the conservation board’s role is to keep liability as well as the safety of both the conservation staff and the public in mind.

As tension in the room began to rise, a female member of the public addressed Mayne directly – asking him to describe his job following an inquiry about staffing.

“So what are you doing during the day then?” she asked Mayne.

“I do a lot of the paperwork – the backend – and sometimes I have to help [my staff] out, too–“ Mayne said before being cut off.

“Sometimes you have to help them,” she interjected.

“And I have no problem helping them out, trying to get this stuff up and running, believe me, I don’t,” Mayne said.

Action taken to reopen the park to foot traffic

As the discussion seemed to reach a stalemate, a request was made by Brian and Erin Gumm of Toledo to reopen the park’s trails to foot traffic. In his remarks to the board, Gumm indicated he was a former ranger at Otter Creek Park and Lake.

“We primarily use the park for hiking and so my request is to try to make some accommodations for walking trail usage within the park in areas that aren’t under active construction,” Gumm said.

Following discussion between board members and Mayne, a motion was made to reopen the park’s trail systems – excluding the west side of the park – to foot traffic only; the motion was seconded and received unanimous board approval.

Mayne then instructed Horne to begin the process of reopening the campgrounds the following day in anticipation of holding a special meeting in the near future to address the issue of reopening the campground.

“We can get it running, it’s just going to be bare bones,” Horne said.

The following day, Mayne issued an update on the county conservation’s Facebook page announcing the decision to reopen to foot traffic: “Due to a delay with the Otter Creek Lake Restoration Project, have opened the park for foot traffic only. This opening includes access to the Nature Center, picnic shelters, walking trails located on the east and north of the park, and restrooms. Camping at Otter Creek Lake & Park is currently closed until further notice. Due to safety concerns, the west side of the park is currently closed. This closure includes: access to the dam, boat launch, the lake bed, and west-side walking trails. … If you are looking for camping opportunities in Tama County, encourage you to check out T.F. Clark Park located in Traer, Iowa.”

An emergency meeting to address the reopening of the campground took place Thursday, May 12, via Zoom. The North Tama Telegraph will update this story online following the meeting.