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Supervisors question efficiency of conservation trips

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Once or twice a year people are invited to go backpacking with Plymouth County Conservation staff.

Each year the conservation board approves the trips, for which participants pay a fee to cover the department's expenses and add to its revenue.

However, those fees do not pay for conservation employees' wages and benefits while on the trips -- something the county board of supervisors questioned Tuesday.

The supervisors shared concerns about the limited number of people the trips reach and the distance they travel from Plymouth County.

For example, in July eight people, accompanied by Victoria De Vos, county naturalist, and a seasonal employee, traveled to the Porcupine Mountains, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

"I guess we're questioning whether we need to go that far on these trips, particularly crossing multiple state lines to camp out," Supervisor Craig Anderson said at Tuesday's meeting.

He addressed those concerns to Dennis Sohl, county conservation director.

"When I look at your programs in the annual report, you're reaching 16 people for every program," Anderson said. "Here we've got somebody tied up for most of a week and each county employee is reaching four people."

He questioned whether that was an efficient use of De Vos' time.

Supervisor Chairman Jim Henrich asked Sohl how the destinations for the annual trips are chosen, and how participants are selected.

Sohl explained that the Porcupine Mountain backpacking trip was planned in partnership with the Story County Conservation Department.

"It was cost-effective to take one 15-passenger van than multiple smaller vehicles," he said. "The van also had a hitch to pull a trailer for supplies."

Plymouth County often partners with other Iowa counties on the trips, Sohl said.

People can sign up on a first-come, first-served basis for the trips. That information is released to the public at the same time in all counties involved, he said.

Participants must meet physical ability requirements to go on the trips, which were started about four years ago.

Sohl said De Vos knew of 12 county conservation boards across Iowa that do trips similar to those in Plymouth County.

The board of supervisors Tuesday also questioned the purpose of the trips, whether participants are backpacking in the Black Hills, in South Dakota, or attending a bison roundup at Custer (S.D.) State Park as they did this year.

To some of the taxpayers the trips look like "a good paid vacation" for conservation staff, said Supervisor Mark Loutsch.

Anderson said he had received numerous calls from people with that same complaint.

He estimated that the Porcupine Mountain trip cost the county about $1,500 for De Vos and the seasonal employee's wages and benefits.

After Tuesday's meeting, Sohl explained that each trip is not just about fun, but also a time of environmental education, provided by the county naturalist.

He noted that the Porcupine Mountain trip led one of the youth participants to choose to study environmental interpretation in college.

Sohl added that the trips also allow participants to see animals, plants and environments much different than what's in Iowa.

"For both children and adults, it's to broaden their exposure to the natural world," he said.

The annual trips are also a way for participants to bond with each other and nature, Sohl said.

"They are in the wilderness away from civilization. They are not allowed cell phones or electronic devices," he said. "It's a way to get back to nature."

At Tuesday's meeting, Supervisor Mark Loutsch said the supervisors will be discussing the annual backpacking trips at budget time early next year.

"I'm concerned with it somewhat," he said.

Anderson said he echoed Loutsch's comments.

"We're not serving very many people with our naturalist in these weeks that we're going camping," Anderson said.

Sohl said he will take the supervisors' concerns about the annual trips to the county conservation board members to obtain their thoughts.

"We will probably do an analysis on what the cost of the trips would be for program participants, if we included those extra fees (employee salaries)," Sohl said.

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These are great opportunities to get residents involved with our county conservation. Once they go on one of these trips, they stay interested and participate in county events and support the conservation efforts. From my interaction with all the staff, they are dedicated, hard-working employees that care about making Plymouth County conservation efficient and successful. I can guarantee they work very hard preparing for and on those trips. I believe the money is well-spent. If the supervisors think these are simply "camping" trips, they aren't involved enough with the conservation team.

-- Posted by Pat Kenaley on Wed, Oct 31, 2012, at 1:17 PM

I think the Supervisors should quit micro managing and let the volunteered Conservation Board decide where the money should be spent. Sounds like the Supervisors have spent the equivalent $1500 of there paid salary time on an issue they no nothing about. We have a conservation board of responsible individuals with conservation background to decide conservation expenditure. That's why they were appointed.

I hope the Supervisors arn't spending their time on what books the Library is purchasing. Supervisors talk about how busy they are, maybe they are just worried about the wrong things.

-- Posted by noworries on Wed, Oct 31, 2012, at 6:41 PM

I'm guessing you two went on one of these tours. Its not the job of County Employees to be out-of-State tour guides at taxpayer expense, especially considering the potential liability. We have really great parks right here in Plymouth County, lets take care of them first!!

-- Posted by machiavelli on Thu, Nov 1, 2012, at 7:33 AM

No I did not go on one of these trips nor did any of my friends or family. I'm just an ordinary conservationist who likes to hear about people enjoying our natural resources.

-- Posted by noworries on Thu, Nov 1, 2012, at 8:51 AM

I didn't go on any of the trips either.

-- Posted by Pat Kenaley on Thu, Nov 1, 2012, at 11:21 AM

And have either of you actually spoken with a Supervisor regarding this matter?

-- Posted by machiavelli on Thu, Nov 1, 2012, at 6:26 PM

Are you a Supervisor?

-- Posted by gm on Thu, Nov 1, 2012, at 9:44 PM

Are you?

-- Posted by machiavelli on Fri, Nov 2, 2012, at 12:32 PM

No, I haven't. Why do you ask?

-- Posted by Pat Kenaley on Fri, Nov 2, 2012, at 12:45 PM

I asked you first:)

-- Posted by gm on Fri, Nov 2, 2012, at 12:45 PM

What a crock! I doubt the people who called to complain, ever signed their kids up for a camping excursion nor got off their own butt to try one themselves. Words cannot express the incredible impact the backpacking trips have made on myself and my two daughters -- my increased sensitivity to conservation -- my gratitude of nature. Until you go on one of these trips, you don't fully appreciate what it is you're are trying to protect.

$1500 to give people, especially kids, this incredible and safe experience is barely anything! I never would have considered taking my girls on my own had I not learned what I did on my ladies backpack trip -- in addition to the confidence and skills I gained. To try any of these trips on my own without De Vos' guidance would have been dangerous and miserable. To say it impacts so few people is bull too. I want to take my son and a few of his friends, on a backpacking excursion -- so add 3 more people to those you've impacted. 4 if you add my brother who wants to go now too. I wouldn't feel comfortable taking them, had I not leaned what I did from Plymouth County Conservation.

If they envy the position so much, maybe they should have become a naturalist themselves -- crappy paycheck and all! I'm sure everyone's idea of a vacation is sleeping on the ground!

So....having said all that....whose house do I teepee for the "concerned" phone calls (biodegradable paper of course)

-- Posted by abrownmiller on Fri, Nov 2, 2012, at 1:21 PM

This is not about the public making phone calls to the Supervisors and complaing, instead this is aboout a Supervisor with a personal vandetta against the conservation board and another one tagging along as usual. Pretty sad!

-- Posted by commonsense anyone? on Sat, Nov 3, 2012, at 10:31 AM

But why not take people on camping trips in Plymouth County? The Five Ridge Prairie is rough and remote and would be a great place to take more kids. And it would educated and enlighten them about the unique features of our region. You don't have to go far away from home to find excellent examples of nature--we have some of the most beautiful areas of the loess hills right here.

-- Posted by midwestliving on Sat, Nov 3, 2012, at 11:36 AM

Gm.... I'm just someone who, when I have an issue, I don't hesitate to talk to the Supervisors or the City Council people. They don't smell bad, they are not radioactive, they are just people. I spoke with one on Saturday and learned that he has had not a single negative call on this issue. I wonder how many of the people bashing them on this thread ever had the nertz to actually call them. Don't be cowards. And midwest... you are absolutely right. My wife and I love 5-ridge. Its a great hike with a great view!

-- Posted by machiavelli on Mon, Nov 5, 2012, at 7:38 AM

So if the Supervisors have had not one complaint about this issue then why are they making a big issue over a lousy $1500.

-- Posted by commonsense anyone? on Mon, Nov 5, 2012, at 6:06 PM

Why don't you ask them... and I was referring to their action in looking in to these expenditures. Really commonsense??? Show some guts.

-- Posted by machiavelli on Mon, Nov 5, 2012, at 6:36 PM

I already know for a fact this is a personel vendetta against a person in the the conservation department. This is not a theory, a guess or a maybe but a fact! Sad but true. I can't name names cause the sentinel will delete if I do.

-- Posted by commonsense anyone? on Mon, Nov 5, 2012, at 7:48 PM

Five Ridge is an awesome day hike, but doesn't suffice for overnight stays nor does it have a grand finale that makes you sit back and say "ahhh that was worth it." I've hiked Five Ridge... it was great for the day, but lacked the sense of awe and accomplishment the back country in the Black Hills provided for me and the Porcupine Mountains provided for my girls. Until you've taken one of these trips, you cannot remotely understand the impact it will make in your life. The respect you gain for nature is immeasurable.

-- Posted by abrownmiller on Tue, Nov 6, 2012, at 7:26 AM

I understand the temptation but micro-management is not good government.

A wise boss once told me to hire good people and let them do their job. If they mess up, talk to them privately, and try to help them improve.

User fees are an age old argument. Should the Fire Chief's or the Sheriff's salary be charged to a small group he works with to promote their safety? Of course not.

It is unlikely that any Supervisor has the mindset, the time, or the knowledge to manage and enhance the conservation program. They never have, and that is the very reason that Conservation Boards were created. Supervisors are generalists, but specialist governance is necessary to protect and mature specialties such as the arts, conservation, recreation, law enforcement, and health.

The trips should not be restricted to within the county, or even to NW Iowa, but it would be wise to seek less expensive trips unless sponsorships become a part of the mix. The Supers, with their clout, could help the CCB convince businesses or organizations to partially subsidize the trips. On completion, the participants should share their experiences with a broad range of youth and adult groups.

Some of us old fogies are reluctant to spend money on stuff we do not use. Even schools, for heaven's sake! But, we must realize that younger generations have more free time on their hands and are not likely to pursue the same leisure time activities as we did. Frisbee golf anyone? Dog Parks? Geocaching?

An umbrella support group is necessary

-- Posted by donpaulin on Wed, Nov 7, 2012, at 12:58 PM

Good to hear from you Don. You're a fairly smart old fogey!

-- Posted by Pat Kenaley on Wed, Nov 7, 2012, at 2:05 PM

Good to here from you Don. I agree with you 100%. I just would like to reiterate is that each individual camper had to pay there own way and the only money we are talking about here is the salaries of the County Conservation people that went along. We really don't have a lot here as far as culture here in Little ol' Plymouth county but I would bet over 90% of us really enjoy the great outdooors and want to not only preserve it thru conservation but also promote it by allowing our yougsters to see and enjoy it from other areas here in the midwest.

-- Posted by noworries on Wed, Nov 7, 2012, at 5:33 PM

Thanks Pat and Mr/Ms NO. My column in Monday night's Sentinel elaborates on this issue.

Yes, I know that only the salaries are the issue. I do understand the Supers argument that something like a 4 to 1 staff to participant ratio is expensive. An effort to subsidize or otherwise mitigate that cost should be made.

NO, don't put PlyCo down! No mountains or Operas, but you have the Loess Hills, the Big Sioux, several small parks, many golf courses, and the fine Ply Co Museum + others.

I know efforts are made to get city kids into the country, since the County is one of the finest Ag areas in the world, perhaps more should be done. Farm kids can teach city kids a lot about nature!

-- Posted by donpaulin on Mon, Nov 12, 2012, at 10:09 AM

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