And the survey says...

Last month I wrote about how much has happened at Des Moines County Conservation in the last five years and how much I look forward to the next five as we work on assembling our new strategic plan. Today I want to share a little background on our preparations for that planning process. 

Earlier in the summer we assembled a rather lengthy public survey then distributed it in an effort to get as much public feedback as we could regarding what we should focus on going into the future. We posted the survey several places online. Most of the staff got together in the office one day and stuffed and stamped over 1,000 envelopes containing hard copy surveys which were then mailed to a randomly selected list of Des Moines County residents. We handed out surveys in our parks and at our offices.

In the end, we got about 400 responses back. It wasn’t the thousand I was hoping for when we kicked off the survey campaign, but still pretty good. For perspective, Linn County conducted a similar survey effort in 2014 and received less than 300 responses.

Statistically, 400 responses in a county of 39,417 is well above the 95 percent confidence level. But because not all responses were collected the same way (remember we solicited responses online, through the mail, and in person), the true confidence level is more complex too calculate.

Too complex for me to bother with actually. Mostly I just want to know what 400 of my fellow community members had to say about county parks and recreation.

Once all the responses were collected, we combed through every single one, entered every hard copy response into the online system, generated some large spreadsheets, drank a lot of coffee, and compiled the responses into a single 38-page report which included not just counts and averages for the quantifiable responses, but also included every single long-form response and comment. That report was then read by every staff and board member and we’ve had much discussion about it has since.

By now I’m sure you’re dying to know what the responses were. So here are some of the highlights:

We asked what outdoor recreation activities you or members of your household participated in during the past 24 months, then asked you to indicate the three favorite activities you or members of your household most enjoy. Combining all the answers and counting the number of times any particular activity was listed, your top five favorite outdoor recreation activities, in order of enjoyment, were Hiking/Walking, Fishing, Driving/Sight-Seeing, Bicycling, and Nature Photography/Watching.

Then we asked for three activities you have not done, but would like to try and combined the answers the same way. The top five in that category, in order, were Canoeing/Kayaking, Cabin Camping, Horseback Riding, Geocaching, and Riding All-Terrain Vehicles.

The next question was “When families or friends from out of the county come to visit you in Des Moines County, what activities do they do and/or what places do they visit?” We listed a bunch of options and asked you to check all that applied. The top five visitor activities in Des Moines County, in order, were Restaurants, Parks/Campgrounds/Cabins, Shopping Areas, Historic Sites, and Downtown District.

Wait. Parks, campgrounds, and cabins came in second only to restaurants as the most popular visitor activity? Wow. I guess county parks are more of a visitor attraction that we thought.

In the next section of the survey we listed all our parks and asked whether you were aware of their existence and if so, how often you visit them. From that we learned we could do a much better job at marketing some of our less-known areas (more on marketing shortly).

Then we asked a couple questions about park development and improvement. Improved-surface biking/walking trails were the most requested amenity to add to the county park system. Cabins and improved campgrounds (full hook-up sites and shower houses at the campgrounds that don’t already have them) were the most requested improvements to existing parks.

Dedicated bike paths were a top-requested amenity from our survey.

We asked some questions about our environmental education programs. While you seem pretty happy with what we already offer (which is mostly for kids), it appears we could do a much better job at advertising our programs and there’s quite a bit of demand for programs and activities for adults.

On the subject of marketing, we asked where you get your information regarding our programs and activities. Your top five sources, in order, were Word of Mouth, Local Newspapers, Facebook, Radio, and Website ( Based on the comments, it also appears that there’s a fair bit of demand for an e-newsletter also.

In the next section we asked you to place a high, medium, or low priority on each item in a list of potential activities or projects. The top five projects, in order of average rank were: Protect natural areas from invasive species; Acquire and protect more natural areas with sensitive characteristics such as geology, water quality, or rare/unique species; Establish a greenbelt by protecting land along Flint Creek; Provide improved amenities such as shower houses and or full/hook-up campsites at existing campgrounds; Provide more in-park rental cabins.

There's also quite a bit of demand for more rental cabins.
We then asked if you would support the allocation of additional tax dollars to fund the items you indicated should be high priority. 53 percent of you checked yes and an additional 33 percent said Maybe/Uncertain. Only 14 percent checked no.

We asked if you’d be willing to make a tax-deductible donation to those high priority projects and only 21 percent said no.

To me, these last two responses are proof, once again, of just how much this community supports and is willing to invest in parks and natural resources in Des Moines County. It makes me proud to be part of this community. It also makes me realize just what a responsibility we have as a conservation department to stay focused on what’s important and never waiver in our dedication to the sustainability of natural resources through land stewardship, conservation education, and by providing quality outdoor recreation opportunities. As I’ve written repeatedly before, it’s that support that has gotten us to where we are today and it’s that support that will make Des Moines County’s parks and natural resources even better in the future.

You’ve given us our mission. Now it’s up to us to deliver. We have your support. Together, we’re going to create some awesome outdoor experiences in the coming years.

The survey says so.

This is a longer-form version of my "Living Land" column that was originally published in The Hawk Eye.

Like these posts? Subscribe here to get future Outdoor Executive Dad posts sent right to your inbox. No spam. I promise.