The Days are Long but the Years are Short

You know how, looking forward, time seems longer than it does looking backward?

I’m a fairly new parent with a daughter that’s three-going-on-13 and a three-month-old son. Five years ago, the concept of having kids of my own seemed pretty foreign to me. Now there isn’t hardly a day that goes by that I don’t look at my little girl and wonder where the time has gone.

Then at night, holding the little one, I think about five years into the future and those days seem so far away. And I know his mother wonders if he’ll ever let her sleep through the night.

Ah yes, the days are long but the years are short.

I bring this up not just because I’m mildly sleep deprived but because at Des Moines County Conservation, we recently came to the end of our five year strategic plan and are getting ready to launch into the next one. And there’s no doubt that the last five years at Des Moines County Conservation have been both long and short.

For example, five years ago our nature center staff and I lamented the old, faded, dusty displays, outdated programs, and worn-out look of the nature center itself. We regularly had parents bring their kids in for programs and comment, “Oh I remember that from when I came here as a kid.”

Though none of that seemed to reduce demand for programs. Five years ago, we held our annual summer camp signup as an evening event where parents had to come to the nature center in person to register their kids for camp. As our camps grew in popularity, we knew something finally had to change the year parents starting lining up at nine in the morning for the 5 o’clock event.

I’m pretty sure lines for new iPhones or Rolling Stones tickets have been shorter.

So we made updating our nature center and education programs one of our top priorities in the last five year plan. With the help of $50,000 from the Murray Foundation, a pile of donations from people in this community through the Partners for Conservation Foundation, a REAP Conservation Education Program Grant, and a massive volunteer effort led by local carpenter and volunteer-extraordinaire, Kevin Moore, we tackled the monumental task of modernizing an 1800’s barn-turned-nature center.

Now here we are five years later and Starr’s Cave Nature Center has been completely remodeled. The new displays complement the 21st Century education curriculum integrating standards such as STEM and NGSS. Camp registration is done online. Our iconic nature center is once again a place where a kid can spend hours exploring and learning about the natural world.

The new look of Starr's Cave Nature Center.
I know this is true because my 3-year-old was kind enough to volunteer to test it out.

Yet what we’ve done at the nature center is only a small part of what’s been accomplished in county parks these last five years. The development of Big Hollow Recreation Area a mere 10 miles north of Burlington is every bit as impressive.

Five years ago we had only just put down the gravel in the 32-site RV campground at the park. We had little to no infrastructure and even less of an idea how to afford the amenities we wanted to add.

But what we did have was the public’s demand for a regional outdoor recreation attraction and a very supportive community. So once again, we used community donations, park revenue, and a loan from the county to leverage more grants and invest over $600,000 into a park that is now one of the most popular camping, boating, fishing, hiking, and paddling destinations in the area. This summer alone we’ve documented visitors from 26 states as well as Canada, and interestingly, Australia.

And we’re not done. The often-requested playground is scheduled to be installed at Big Hollow next week. This $40,000 addition to the park is another amenity that’s been completely funded by grants and community donations.

This is the actual play structure that will be built in our park next week, The company, Bears Playgrounds, pre-builds all their structures in their shop before reassembling them on-site,

I could fill pages describing all the changes that have taken place in our county parks over the past five years but the paper won’t let me. Our annual reports are available online at if you’d like to know more. You can also find us on Facebook.

I’ll end with this: The members of this community help set the priorities in our strategic plans. You, the members of this community, have been largely responsible for funding those projects in our county parks. As the head of this department, a fellow community member, and a dad of a toddler that increasingly loves those parks, I thank you.

I hope you enjoy your local parks, trails, and outdoor recreation areas as much as my family does and I can’t wait to see what we accomplish together over the next five years.

This piece was originally published in The Hawk Eye as part of my monthly "Living Land" column.