Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Coming Soon...Jester Park Nature Center!

Polk County is the only metropolitan area in the state that does not have a nature center. There are 53 nature centers around the state of Iowa, none of which are located in Iowa's most populous county. It is difficult to capture in words what the Des Moines area is missing that others areas have, and certain questions arise...

Why does Polk County need a nature center?
What’s in it for me and my community?  

The Jester Park Nature Center will serve as one of Iowa's leading nature centers as well as a gateway to experience our state's natural environment. It will serve as a focal point within our community where recreation, education, tourism and conservation efforts all intersect into one goal - to protect, preserve and promote the landscape in which we live, work and play. There is considerable animosity in today’s world surrounding some natural resource and environmental topics, such as water quality and climate change. We need a neutral, science-based understanding to form the foundation of our opinions, plans and actions.

What will this nature center will help accomplish? 

Especially here in central Iowa, in the most urbanized area of our state, we need the understanding of natural systems, and human interactions, both in the rural and urban sectors. Now, more than ever before, we face many challenges and opportunities. Understanding basic scientific principles to face these challenges and possible solutions is needed to prepare our future citizens and leaders. The nature center will provide a place for minds to become more familiar and educated on nature; our bodies a number of activities to enjoy and grow healthier in the outdoors; and our soul a respite and re-centering in this fast-paced world in which we reside where we sometimes forget our roots. At Jester Park alone, our naturalists are reaching out to more than 7,000 people through approximately 450 public programs. Once built, these numbers are anticipated to double! Park attendance will also double and bring in more than one million people to the park each year.

To better appreciate our roles and responsibilities in this land and to strengthen our bond and ensure we leave a legacy for generations to come, a gathering place where all these goals come together to provide a platform for discovery must be present:

for Education

...by increasing year-round environmental education opportunities with interpretive exhibits on the importance of biodiversity, water quality and conservation of natural resources as well providing inspiration through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programming 

for Recreation

...by offering an activity hub where families will have a starting point to their outdoor adventures with rental equipment such as cross country skis, snowshoes, insect nets and fishing poles available to all

 for Economic Development

...by creating a destination site for tourists to engage in outdoor discovery

for Environment

...by doing everything within our power to conserve and protect our environment and natural heritage - this nature center will bring to life this need to conserve 
(photo courtesy of Carl Kurtz)

for Community 

  ...by promoting health through increased outdoor skills programming and increased time in nature to improve health, wellness and quality of life for every park visitor

The Jester Park Nature Center will serve as a beacon for all, providing a gathering place for both resident and visitors of our community alike to immerse themselves in the richness of Iowa's natural history and the promising future ahead.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

60 Years of Conservation in Polk County

60 years and counting! 2016 marks another milestone year since Polk County Conservation's (PCC)inception. The organization has come a long way since its humble beginnings back in 1956. Let's take a look at PCC's historical past, dynamic present and the exciting future that lies ahead. 

The Organization

Polk County Conservation Board (PCCB) is governed by five members appointed by the Polk County Board of Supervisors. Its mission is to provide the citizens of Polk County with quality outdoor recreation, conservation education and the long-term protection of Polk County’s natural heritage. This effort is carried out by full-time and seasonal staff including Natural Resources Specialists, Rangers, Environmental Educators, Construction & Maintenance crews, Administration and Support Staff, as well as hundreds of volunteers.

The early days

Staff a few years back - my, how we have grown!

The Past

Polk County Conservation Board (PCCB) was created by the voters of Polk County to acquire, develop and maintain areas devoted to conservation and public recreation. Based on the landmark 1955 County Conservation Law passed by the Iowa State Legislature, the 99 county conservation boards in Iowa have developed one of the most successful conservation programs in the United States. It is impossible to imagine what Polk County would be like without a Conservation Board.

PCC administration offices were first housed in the courthouse downtown Des Moines. A strategic move of the conservation headquarters to Jester Park occurred in 1967. We have called this place home ever since as we continue to add public places for citizens and visitors of Polk County to enjoy. 


The Present

PCC has accomplished a tremendous amount of goals in recent years. The 20+ park and wildlife areas managed today by PCC are visited by more than 1.9 million people each year. Our Family of Parks includes over 45miles of  paved trails and 40 miles of natural trails. Our public recreation areas cover more than 14,000 acres in the state's most populous county. Since the historic passing of the Polk County Water and Land Legacy (PCWLL) bond referendum in 2012, critical funding for projects has boosted our organization's ability to fulfill our mission statement to the fullest capacity. 

Land protection has resulted in improved wildlife habitat

PCWLL bond funds have helped to acquire more than 700 acres of sensitive land since its induction. Land acquisition for recreational trails and greenbelts, and land and wildlife habitat protection as well as water quality within the agricultural landscape of central Iowa have become top priorities in recent years. These projects have become attainable thanks in part to this funding. These acquisitions will become increasingly important in the coming decade as the metropolitan population increases. 

Major trail to major trail connections have also been at the top of the list in terms of organization-wide projects. An effort to connect cities and towns to trails and parks has led the people of Polk County outdoors and created valuable connections for trail users to their environment and surrounding communities. Trail connections along the Chichaqua Valley Trail, Gay Lea Wilson Trail and Great Western Trail are now complete. Anticipated completion of the Mark C. Ackelson Trail will wrap up all major trail improvements in the works. Though these immediate major trail enhancements are coming to a close, the Conservation Board continues to acquire land to complete the 110-mile Central Iowa Trail Loop and continues to search out new areas in Polk County to attain, develop and protect. 

The Future

Several initiatives lie at the forefront of goal planning within PCC.These initiatives include provision and expansion in the following areas: 

environmental education
watershed management (and associated water quality issues)
public awareness
outdoor recreation
natural areas 

Throughout the past decade, PCCB has devoted increasingly greater resources toward environmental education for Polk County residents.The environmental education staff presents conservation programs to more than 22,000 school children annually and offers more than 300 outdoor recreational programs to the public. On the horizon lies the Jester Park Nature Center, a facility that will more effectively accommodate such a vast array of participants, events and programs provided by PCC. 

This center will also serve as a premier regional conservation hub that will focus on the the aforementioned initiatives where people of all ages can interact with the natural environment through education and recreation. More than half of the funds needed to make this project a success have been secured. PCWLL bond dollars have been leveraged with outside donations from various entities. Individual, family, corporate and foundation donations are incredibly significant and valued contributions that will lead the way in this final phase of fundraising in 2016 as we bring this project from the drawing board to reality.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Top 5 Things To Do This Winter in Your County Parks!

Oh, the weather outside is frightful!

…so let’s stay cozied up by that fireside - right? No way! A central Iowa winter may be a bit on the side of blustery but also quite beautiful and serene. And if there ever was a time to be outside in the name of health, winter is it as our bodies change with the shifting season. 

Outdoor activities help eliminate stress and winter blues, reset sleep and wake cycles, balance hormones and raise metabolism despite those sedentary longings. Exposure to sunlight also promotes the synthesis of vitamin D in the body (a critical one during cold and flu season!). And we here at Polk County Conservation have got you covered on ways to enjoy the frosty winter months ahead. Without further ado and in no particular order, we give you the top 5 things to do in your county parks this winter:

5) Cross Country Skiing
 Rental equipment is available at Jester Park. Call 515-323-5339 for further details.

Cross country skiing is a great way to exercise and get out and enjoy the natural world in the winter. Whether an avid skier or just beginning, Jester Park and Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt offer groomed cross country ski trails for every ability. Chichaqua is the perfect location for a flat trail as you wind your way through the woodlands and along the oxbows. Jester Park offers over 5 miles of trails through the woods, near Saylorville Lake and along the edge of the golf course. Trails are groomed after a snowfall over 6 inches. 

Bike trails are also great locations to ski. The Chichaqua Valley Trail and the Great Western Trail lead skiers through mile after mile of winding trail through the countryside. A scenic route through Easter Lake Park on the Mark C. Ackelson Trail leads skiers through Polk County’s only covered bridge. Looking for more of a challenge? Head out to Brown’s Woods and Thomas Mitchell Park for the more advanced skiers. 

Classes are also available. Come out learn cross country ski basics and practice your newly acquired skills out on the trail. Join our naturalists on the following dates:

January 30 @ 10:00 a.m. – Raccoon River Park Nature Lodge

February 20 @ 10:00 a.m. - Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt Longhouse

4) Snowshoeing
Recommended Trails:

Brown’s Woods, Yellows Banks Savanna Trail, Easter Lake Park Wymore Trail, Fort Des Moines Park Nature Trail, Jester Park Hickory Ridge Trail

Just because the trails are covered in a thick blanket of snow doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the beauty of your favorite county park - if you can walk, you can snowshoe! You only need to walk with your feet a bit wider than normal. Snowshoeing can be enjoyed by anyone just about anywhere in Polk County. The only places to avoid snowshoeing are on those groomed cross-country ski trails listed above and golf courses.

Snowshoes may also be rented for $7/day.

The following snowshoe classes with a naturalist are also available this winter:

 December 31 @ 10:00 a.m. – Easter Lake Park Shelter #3. 

January 23 @ 1:00 p.m. – Thomas Mitchell Park, meet at the pond parking lot. 

January 23 @ 5:30 p.m. for Shoes and Soup at Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt (meet at longhouse)
Come out to the park to snowshoe by the light of the full moon followed by a warm bowl of soup. 

3) Ice Fishing
Ice Fishing Clinics - Bait and poles will be provided. Bring something to sit on and dress warmly.

Polk County Conservation has several ponds to fish – even in the winter! Fort Des Moines, Thomas Mitchell, Yellow Banks, Easter Lake and Jester Park all are great spots to try out this winter. Pan fish such as bluegill and crappie may be found at each location. Even bass and catfish may be pulled through the ice in county parks. 

New to ice fishing? Not sure how to get started? Be sure to take advantage of ice fishing clinics provided by knowledgeable staff in our Environmental Education department. These clinics allow participants to learn the basics of ice fishing as well as getting some hands-on experience. 

Winter Ice Fishing Clinics:
Anyone over the age of 16 will need a valid fishing license.

January 9 @ 10:00 a.m. - Thomas Mitchell Park, meet at the pond parking lot
February 6 @ 1:00 p.m. – Easter Lake Park, Shelter #2

2) Snowmobiling
Photo courtesy of visitiowa.org
Jester Park’s Lakeshore Trail offers snowmobilers a beautiful 5 mile ride along Saylorville Lake. Come check it out! The trail is open for snowmobiling when there is a minimum of 4" of snow. Riders MUST stay on the trail that follows the lakeshore. Signs are posted. Trailheads are located off the Lincoln Access road just north of the Mile-Long Bridge and at Camp Area #6 in Jester Park.

For an update on trail conditions, call the park ranger at (515) 249-3229.
State Regulations Apply. See the Iowa DNR’s Snowmobile Regulations for additional information.

1)      Winter Sleigh Rides and Horse Rides
Call the Center today for further information and to reserve your spot today at 515-999-2818!

Just hear those sleigh bells jingling at the Jester Park Equestrian Center! Sleigh rides are available with adequate snowfall.

Winter Sleigh Rides- December through April
Sleigh Rides for groups up to 6 people. $10/per person for a 45-minute ride thru the snow-covered trails of the Jester Park. 

Pony Express to Santa - December 12th,13th,  19th, and 20th @ 11 am to 3 pm
Bring your child out to enjoy a winter wonderland aboard our ponies and end the trip with a visit to see Santa. Decorate stockings, enjoy Christmas carols on a sleigh ride and much more!

Christmas Sleigh Rides- December 23rd- 27th, when the snow falls. 10 am to 4 pm.
Rides for groups up to 8-10 people for a 45-minute ride through the snow-covered trails of the Jester Park. We will also spread holiday cheer with complimentary hot chocolate, Christmas cookies and holiday crafts for the kids.

Winter Break Camps- December 28th, 29th and 30th   @ 10 am to 2pm.
Need to do some last minute shopping? Are your kid’s going stir crazy in the house? Bring them out for some horsey fun over the holiday season. Winter camps will include safety training, horsemanship skills, a riding lesson, wagon/sleigh ride and a holiday keepsake craft.

Winter is such a beautiful time in Iowa, and fun is right outside your front door! Get outside and enjoy all nature has to offer this beautiful winter season. Be sure to share your winter adventures in your favorite park on our Facebook page!