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The hidden gems of Hamilton County

March 21, 2017
Adri Sietstra ( ,

John Laird, Park Ranger and Naturalist with Hamilton County Conservation, found his calling in


"I grew up playing outdoors in Lehigh, swimming in the river, playing in the woods, playing outside all the time as a kid. That was what we did back then," said Laird.

Laird explained that it was only natural he lean towards conservation as he spent his family vacations camping and was also active in the Boy Scouts.

He worked at Dollar State Park during high school as a conservation aid during the summer and worked at Brushy Creek as a conservation aid. Laird went to Minnesota Bible College for two years after high school, but ended up transferring to Wynona State University to follow his true passion: parks and recreation studies. He interned at Whitewater State Park in Minnesota. Laird spent his summers during college interning at the Fort Dodge Parks and Recreation Forestry Department.

"After my internship in Minnesota, I got on at Forestville State Park as a naturalist," Laird said.

He worked in southwest Minnesota for nine years.

"I started looking at moving back to Iowa and interviewed with the county conservation board system," Laird said. "Being from Iowa, being a Webster County kid, I was aware of Kennedy Park. I grew up driving over here and swimming at Briggs Woods Lake in the 80's as a teenager."

Laird was hired by Hamilton County Conservation in 1996 as a park and forestry technician. Laird was a park and forestry technician from 1996 to 2006. Due to organizational changes in 2006, Laird became a park ranger and naturalist at Hamilton County Conservation.

"In theory, my position now is split 50-50 between naturalist duties and park maintenance and management," Laird said.

Laird comes up with programs for the public and school systems each year. Laird goes to schools and hosts programs around the county and at Briggs Woods. His main presentations focus around middle school aged students.

"I see my position as being very key with changes that are going on in the Iowa Core, which is what the schools go by. There have been some changes to the science standards and I see that the naturalists statewide would be a natural contact for kids to do hands-on activities with would meet the criteria for the new core," Laird said.

Laird also gives presentations for local churches, Rotary, and Kiwanis service clubs.

"I try and give programs that people express interest in. There are some that I try to do that are trendy to the topics at the time," said Laird. "For example, I'm doing a butterfly program in September dealing with butterflies, why numbers are down, and how we can bring numbers back."

One of the most popular programs Laird has put on is the Autumn Night Hike. Individuals get to explore Briggs Woods Park at night and enjoy a meal sponsored by Boman Funeral Home. The Boy Scouts provide s'mores and hot cocoa for participants. Local 4- H members help lead groups on the hike around the park. According to Laird, this program sees as many at 225 people.

"It's enjoyed by all," said Laird. "If it wasn't for the volunteers that help with that, it wouldn't happen."

This year's night hike theme is "Secret Superheros of Nature."

Another popular program is the Little Wall Lake trick-or-treat event. Kids at the campground get to dress up, collect candy, and take advantage of free hay rides. There is also a campground/camper decoration competition.

"People really enjoy that," said Laird. "The campground is usually full that weekend."

Part of the park and campground maintenance includes ensuring the Wi-Fi is working, according to Laird.

"Wi-Fi is important. If the Wi-Fi isn't running at the campground we hear about it," Laird said. "We also have Wi-fi available up at the cabins."

Along with the need for internet out at Briggs Woods, he has seen an increase in flat screen televisions and other technology not normally used for entertainment in the outdoors.

"Times change. Things that weren't even thought of years back, now are pretty critical for people to have. it's interesting going through the campground," Laird said.

Laird also helps with maintenance around the park when he is not fulfilling the naturalist side of his position.

"I like the variety of it all. Variety is the spice of life, so it's nice to have some of that," said Laird. "I really enjoy the naturalist aspect of the position and being able to present to people."

Individuals who attend these programs get to experience nature in new and interesting ways. Whether it's learning about animal species or the layout of the land.

"Sometimes it's the simple things too, like maybe you've never seen a bald eagle before or maybe you've never called a bard owl and got it to respond before," said Laird. "Some of these things that if you're outside it's pretty common, but if you're inside all the time...we don't always connect to nature."

There are many benefits to being outside and connecting with nature according to Laird.

"It's important that people connect to nature because it's been proven that people's stress levels drop. It's good for people emotionally to be out in the woods. It calms people down. It clears their mind. It's very good health-wise to connect to nature and be outside and have that downtime to listen to the wind, leaves and animals and relax and enjoy the sunshine," said Laird.

"One of the biggest assets Hamilton County has, in

my opinion, is the Boone River," he said. "We need to realize in the watershed of the Boone, what we do and how we manage it affects water quality issues in the Boone River because that affects us all."

Laird explained the importance of filter strips in the watershed to slow down and filter the water. According to Laird, Iowa's number one pollution problem is sedimentation in the water.

"I would like it if my children and grandchildren could look in the Boone River or the Des Moines River standing on a bridge, and see the bottom like my father did growing up," Laird said.

Due to changing land management practices, Laird likens the Boone River looking like "chocolate milk" in part to sedimentation.

"I'd like to challenge the public in how can we balance agriculture, which is what we need to live, with keeping our rivers clean," said Laird.

One of the "hidden gems" within the park are the waterfalls, according to Laird. There are a series of three waterfalls near the spillway. The waterfalls are accessible by walking the trail.

"Most people don't realize they're there. They're real beautiful to see, especially when there is high water conditions. Most of the year they are really interesting to look at," Laird said.

"The waterfalls are the big hidden gem that people here aren't aware of," said Laird.

"By shelter three, which is the barn, there is a prairie area. That one of my favorite areas of the park, the transition from the woodland to the prairie," said Laird.

"The bike trail is one of my favorite things. I like to bike. I see people enjoying the bike trail daily," Laird said.

The development of the park has been the most noticeable change at Briggs Woods according to Laird. When he started in 1996 at Hamilton County Conservation, the campground was where the cabins now sit. Former campers wanted a shower house. Under the direction of then-director Brian Holt, the decision was made to move the campground to where is is now because there was more level ground.

"The biggest thing I've seen in this park has been development. Basically changing one whole area of the park from one use to another use. The bike trail wasn't here when I started. The bike trail has been developed. It's a major connection between Webster City and the city and county parks," said Laird. "Also the newer cabins we have now. They have heat and air conditioning as well as flat screen televisions."

Visitors who go to the park can canoe, fish, camp, golf and explore all 550 acres Briggs Woods has to offer. With the park's close proximity to Webster City and Highway 20, guests can boost tourism in Webster City by shopping and eating out in town.

Laird would like to do more public and school programming throughout the community.

"I think programs are important," he said. "They generate awareness of what we have and gives everyone an opportunity to enjoy and understand the natural resources we live amongst."

The public is always welcome to contact Laird about programs they would like Hamilton County Conservation to do.

"I want to know what the public wants for programming," said Laird. "I want to present programs that will interest them so they will come."

"Someday, the children of today will be the adults of tomorrow that are managing all these natural resources. Whether you're talking a farm field or a timber stand or a river corridor or a pond or lake or prairie. People need to understand how they all interconnect," said Laird.

As a lover of astronomy, he would also like to get a big telescope out to Briggs Woods for star gazing.

"I do astronomy programs occasionally, but I would really like to get a group of people who are interested in astronomy and start an amateur astronomy club," he said. "I would love to do that. I love being outside and looking at the stars at night."

"I think it's so important to understand the outdoors," Laird said.

Laird also has a goal of working with the Webster County Conservation Department in the next five years.

"They have acquired Camp WaNoKi. Karen Hansen and Erin Ford have talked to me about doing joint programming over there between Webster and Hamilton County," said Laird.

Laird is looking forward to possible day camps and programs at the camp for all ages.

Hansen and Laird have close ties. The duo graduated high school together.

"For us to work together, for me, just feels real natural because we knew each other growing up," he said. "It just works really well."

As the conservation efforts continue in Hamilton County, Laird hopes to educate area youth on the importance of valuing the natural resources here.

"We have a generation of kids that are so disconnected from nature that they don't understand nature and are kind of scared of it," he said. "We need them to be able to embrace it and understand it and connect to it."



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