March 05, 2021

Jasper County Conservation looks ahead to future projects

Staff reflect on the positives of 2020

The Jasper County Conservation has plenty to look forward to in 2021 after closing the book on a challenging and unusual year.

Conservation director Keri Van Zante said the department is looking ahead to many future projects as progress has been made to introduce new ways to enjoy the outdoors in Jasper County.

The JCC secured grants that raised more than $3 million for the Red Rock Prairie Trail project that will begin construction this summer. The first phase will connect Monroe and Prairie City first to the entrance of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and then through Mitchelleville to Des Moines in future phases.

While Mariposa Park didn’t get its grand opening ceremony last year as planned, the park was still open to public to enjoy after a multi-million dollar project helped improve the water quality of the lake and brought new amenities like a boat ramp. More progress will be seen at the park after the conservation received a grant to install a modern campground at Mariposa. Van Zante hopes construction will begin later this year.

Van Zante is excited to introduce two new parks to Jasper County this year. While details about the two new locations haven’t been released yet, the conservation will announce ore details when the parks are ready to open.

Of course the conservation will also continue fundraising for the Environmental Education Center project. While the pandemic forced the conservation host a virtual version of the Caring for Conservation Auction, the event still raised nearly $15,000 for the project. A Slipstream concert on Aug. 28 at Ashton Wildlife Park will also raise funds for the education center.

2020 was a year that will never be forgotten, but despite the challenges, there have been plenty of reasons to celebrate what has passed.

“Looking back on it all makes me thankful for so many good friends, family, hard work, generosity and kindness that have helped us all through the year most of us would prefer to celebrate coming to an end,” Van Zante said.

While 2020 was a difficult year for many, the staff of Jasper County Conservation is looking at the challenges of the year in a positive way.

Van Zante said the year had more people seeking outdoor activities and utilizing Jasper County Parks for family bonding. Staff at the conservation got creative after the pandemic hit in March arranging a pandemic-friendly event with the Bear Hunt at Ashton Wildlife Park, Mariposa Park and Jacob Krumm Nature Preserve. From there, they launched a scavenger hunt via the GooseChase app that had families participating from all over the county.

“At school, our naturalists began leading Zoom programs and then we created our own YouTube page with dozens of educational videos and activities for family enjoyment,” Van Zante said.

When the realization that summer camps were not going to happen like normal, the conservation partnered with Newton Noon Kiwanis to distribute three different summer camp boxes during the summer months.

“What a hit these were! Kids were learning about conservation, families were playing together in our parks and we were still being allowed to provide education, not only to kids, but also for their parents,” Van Zante said.

Then Mother Nature delivered a blow in August with the derecho that had the entire conservation staff working every day for months to get Jasper County’s parks back in shape. The worst damage happened at Ashton Wildwood Park and the Chichaqua Valley Trail. Van Zante said it was an overwhelming task at first but everyone worked together to get a plan in action.

“Never have I been so proud of a team, working through grueling heat, poison ivy infestations and impossibly tall piles of trees and debris. It was an all hands-on deck sort of show; park officers, maintenance staff, naturalists — all of us working long hours every single day for several months to get parks back open for public enjoyment,” Van Zante said.

The most unusual part of the process was everyone enjoyed the work in the long run. Despite the long hours, the conservation staff laughed as they sweated through a hot day or muddled through cleanup in the rain.

“What a fantastic career to have, where you get to enjoy your work family so much, that you forget how terribly your muscles ache from the tasks you just accomplished. Thankful is an understatement for something like this,” Van Zante said.

Contact Pam Pratt at 641-792-3121 ext. 6530 or

Pam Pratt

I have been at the Newton News since October 2014. I started as the Associate Editor and was promoted to Editor in April 2019.