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.