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Thirty-eight years later, Sohl to retire as conservation director

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dennis Sohl has been overseeing conservation in Plymouth County as director for 38 years. Sohl recently announced plans to retire this summer. In the file photo above, he stands at the windows in the Dennis L. Sohl Center for Outdoor Learning, in the Hillview Recreation Area. Right: Sohl sits at his desk in the center. Completion of the center was one of many accomplishments Sohl helped realize throughout the years.
Dennis Sohl has been involved with Plymouth County Conservation for nearly four decades -- a career that will wrap up this year.

Last week, he formally announced his plans to retire in August during a special meeting of the Plymouth County Conservation Board.

Bob Schlesser, board chairman, said Sohl's retirement letter was accepted by the board "with a little remorse."

"That gives him 38 years of service to Plymouth County, which is something to be very proud of," Schlesser said.

Sohl said he and his wife had been considering his potential retirement since last fall.

"With the budget scenario that is currently in place for the next fiscal year for this department, in my opinion for us to maintain the level of service to the county residents without reducing line items, we had to make cuts to personnel," Sohl said.

He decided to do that by starting at the top instead of cutting lower-level positions, therefore maintaining all the current staff, Sohl said.

"They are all young, energetic. They all have a vision for conservation in the future," he said. "Generational change is sometimes good, so I made the decision."

Sohl said he had always planned to retire this summer, but hadn't intended to announce it quite yet.

"I'm retiring for myself and my family," he said. "It just works out that it coincides with a budget reduction."

Recently, the county board of supervisors allocated $490,000 to the conservation board in the county's proposed 2013-14 budget year, beginning July 1.

The conservation board's original budget request was $551,242 for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Sohl said his decision to retire was voluntary.

"I've got other things in mind," he said. "I'm not being forced out."

Schlesser said conservation board members did not expect, or ask for, Sohl's retirement.

"The board's feeling is we could have made some things work on the budget," Schlesser said.

He explained that the conservation board plans to fill Sohl's position by promoting from within its own staff.

"The board made a motion and it passed unanimously to hire from within if we can," Schlesser said. "As far as we understand the (Iowa) code, that is perfectly legal."

If the board learns differently, the conservation director's position will be advertised publicly, he said.

"As of right now it is our intention to open it up to any full-time employees," Schlesser said.

There are currently four full-time employees other than Sohl.

In doing that, conservation board members feel they are giving current staff members a chance to bring forth their qualifications and ideas, he said.

"We've got a good, young staff, a very passionate staff," Schlesser said. "We want to give them the opportunity to address their vision to us."

He added that the board will review each application to ensure individuals have the necessary qualifications.

"We have the right, if we don't think any of them qualify, to open it up to an advertised position," Schlesser said.

He explained that it's the board's intent to immediately move forward with the process to fill Sohl's position.

However, that individual would not begin in the conservation director's position role until July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

"They (the board) would like the new person to start July 1, and we would work together until my last day on Aug. 15," Sohl said.

That day will be exactly one month after his 38-year anniversary as Plymouth County's conservation director, Sohl said.

He became Plymouth County's first full-time conservation employee in 1975.

At the time, the volunteer conservation board owned three recreation areas: Big Sioux County Park, north of Akron, Southeast Wildwood Park, northwest of Kingsley, and Stanton Picnic Area, the site of the former Stanton Methodist Church, south of Le Mars.

"The conservation board bought the church site for the garage," Sohl said. "That became my first workshop."

Schlesser commended Sohl's efforts in acquiring recreation opportunities in Plymouth County such as Hillview Recreation Area, west of Hinton, and Five Ridge Prairie, southeast of Westfield.

"Five Ridge Prairie was a big accomplishment," he said. "I think that's what he's (Sohl's) most proud of -- getting that acquisition put together."

Sohl said he's seen a lot of changes during his 38 years as conservation director in Plymouth County.

"The scope has expanded our responsibility, but the public's appreciation of natural areas has increased over the decades," he said. "I feel we're an integral part of providing quality of life opportunities for visitors to and residents of our area."

Sohl said there are many things he will miss about working with conservation in Plymouth County.

"The one thing I will miss the most is prescribed fire," he said. "It's such an excellent tool for prairie management."

Prescribed burning is using fire in a controlled manner to maintain natural prairie plant life and wildlife.

"We're going down a little in staffing because of my retirement," Sohl said. "I just hope that part of our program can continue somehow."

He said he will also miss his staff.

"They are all young professionals," Sohl said. "I'm sure there will be change coming and it will be for the good."

Retirement will also mean changes in his own life, including possibly going back to school.

If accepted, Sohl said he plans to take a course called Clinical Pastoral Education, offered by the Ecumenical Institute.

"It's been recommended that I could benefit from it and enjoy it," Sohl said. "I thought why not? I'm going to have some free time."

Sohl will take classes for the course at the National Holistic Institute, in Cherokee.

Although not an ordained pastor, Sohl is a former lay pastor in the Presbyterian Church and still does "pulpit supply" when necessary.

"I fill in when a pastor's on vacation or something," Sohl said. "It keeps me busy. The entire month of February and into March is already booked up."

He said he's looking forward to retirement and future opportunities, but for the next several months his focus will be on conservation in Plymouth County.

"There are some things I need to finish and some things I want to start yet," Sohl said. "Whoever takes my place will have their plate full right away."

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Thank you Dennis for all the years of dedicated service to our county! You should be very proud of what you've done for Plymouth County.

-- Posted by Pat Kenaley on Tue, Jan 29, 2013, at 12:34 PM

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