Inside Linn County Conservation’s derecho recovery effort

Linn County Conservation — Brian Johannesen/Little Village

The derecho that tore through the Midwest on Aug. 10 has left scars all across Iowa. Hundreds of thousands lost power, cell service and internet connection — some are still without. Ten million acres of crops were damaged. The residents of Cedar Rapids found their roofs blown off and massive trees uprooted and splayed across their homes and yards. But, slowly, Cedar Rapids has begun the recovery process, albeit with little help from the federal government and little national news coverage.

As the more fortunate residents start to get back to some semblance of a normal routine, they may find that their visits to Linn County’s parks, trails and natural areas will look different. Some may even be closed. To discuss the fallout and recovery efforts in Linn County’s public areas, as well as their crucial role in mental and physical health during the pandemic, Linn County Conservation Community Outreach Specialist Ryan Schlader was able to answer some questions via email.

What do you consider to be Linn County Conservation’s role in the community?

Well, an excerpt from our Mission Statement:

“To preserve and protect natural and cultural resources and to improve community through access to parks, trails, open spaces and recreational and education opportunities.”

We feel strongly about the value of making available outdoor recreation experiences and connections to nature for residents and visitors. We have additionally focused efforts to address the need to improve and protect water quality and to strengthen the environment in a sustainable and responsible way.

Linn County Conservation — Brian Johannesen/Little Village

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected operations at Linn County Conservation and that relationship with the community?

Although we have a board of directors, we are also a department of Linn County. Linn County Conservation manages over 28 areas that total just over 8,000 acres (about 1.5 percent of the county) in the form of parks, trails, natural areas and preserves.

Spring and summer are our busiest seasons. We have nearly 300 campsites available at our parks that are heavily used, as well as lodges and outdoor shelters that are available for family events, weddings, graduations, business retreats, etc. Due to the COVID-19 situation, we had to delay the start of our camping season by a month (normally starting April 15) as well as use of our reservable facilities. We also closed the Wickiup Hill Learning Center, a nature center just northwest of Cedar Rapids that offers educational programs for all ages, including field trips for area schools led by our naturalists. Those programs have been suspended. We have tried to re-open on a reservation basis for our indoor building and offer some outdoor programs. That was short-lived with derecho.

As we aggressively develop and maintain our park system, we have continually promoted the intrinsic benefits of these areas. Now more than ever, people are maintaining their mental and physical health by visiting our outdoor areas. We’ve seen increased numbers, especially with families, and fortunately these open spaces have allowed for safe, physical distancing.

According to the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), 83 percent of adults find exercising at local parks, trails and open spaces essential to maintain their mental and physical health during this pandemic. Furthermore, 59 percent of respondents say it is very or extremely essential to have these green spaces to relieve stress and remain healthy during this crisis.

What has been the effect of the derecho storm on the parks, trails and natural areas in Linn County?

We have had to temporarily close Wickiup Hill Learning Center, Morgan Creek Park and Squaw Creek Park due to hazard tree debris and ongoing removal. After 11 days, we re-opened the campgrounds in these areas. Several trails, including the Cedar Valley Nature Trail and Grant Wood Trail, have been closed in different areas.

Pinicon Ridge Park near Central City and Buffalo Creek Park near Coggon were not affected by the storm.

Linn County Conservation — Brian Johannesen/Little Village

What will the clean-up and restoration effort look like?

Our park staff have been working vigorously toward tree and debris removal in an effort to reopen our areas. Linn County has contracted with a specialized natural disaster recovery company Ceres Environmental Services to assist in disposal of storm-generated organic debris. Priority of work is county buildings, secondary roads, then parks and trails will be included as well.

What the future will hold? Not sure yet. We did have some shop buildings destroyed, but not a lot of other public facilities were affected. We do know some park areas may look a bit different.

How can people help and support Linn County Conservation?

We appreciate the attachment to and love for our park system by so many people. We’ve had some inquiries if people can help “clear the trail” or do some “park pick-up,” but right now it is too dangerous as we have been mobilizing and using heavy equipment. Perhaps there will be that opportunity in the future for a volunteer effort, but not as I write this.

We have been asking people to consider other volunteer opportunities for critical community needs, such as the LAP-Aid website:

We will get through this! Best way to support us is to continue to advocate for our park and trail system. We do accept monetary donations of any kind, and the public has been very gracious with their contributions. There is a donation page at or it can be as easy as sending in a check.

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