The Dubuque County Conservation Department has requested $2 million for projects in the fiscal year beginning in July to support land acquisition efforts and projects derived from an ongoing strategic planning process.
Brian Preston, the conservation department’s executive director, presented requests for $398,000 for infrastructure projects during a recent budget hearing with Dubuque County supervisors. That money would be used to replace two Heritage Trail bridges, restrooms and shelters.
Another $139,000 would cover requests for equipment, including a replacement mower, mobile data terminals, body cameras and duty weapons for conservation officers.
Those are routine, and according to Preston, necessary expenses.
“The county conservation (department) was created in 1952,” he explained. “Most of our development was put in soon thereafter. Everything we had was 60 years old and falling apart.”
Supervisor Jay Wickham said the county has a lot of ground to make up in terms of conservation investment.
“There was a lot of neglect related to park, assets, vehicles,” he said. “Expenditures are coming a lot more than they used to.”
Conservation officials also asked for $340,000 for several big ecological projects and streambank stabilization efforts.
Other proposed projects stem from an ongoing long-term planning process being undertaken by the Dubuque County Conservation Board and RDG Planning and Design. More than 500 people have contributed input to that process.
The biggest piece of that is $675,000 for three cabins to be built at New Wine Park in New Vienna. Preston said cabins were a popular option with the public and, while they are costly up front, they generally make up for that investment in just a few years.
Supervisor Ann McDonough asked if the county could break the project up and build one at a time. Preston said that would cost far more in the long run as construction would have to start and stop multiple times.
Also out of the planning process were ideas for primitive camping pads and a nearby latrine for campers at Twin Springs near Durango at a cost of $40,000.
Projects from public input also appeared as add-ons to other efforts that already needed doing, like adding kayak launches to a creek crossing at Bowstring Wildlife Area and streambank stabilization at New Wine.
“This all comes from our strategic planning and our citizens,” Preston told supervisors. “This isn’t the conservation board or me saying, ‘We want cabins.’”
One ask that did surprise McDonough was $300,000 to be banked in a conservation department land acquisition fund. Supervisors previously approved putting $200,000 into the fund in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Preston said this would allow county conservation to move quickly if owners of property touching existing county property wished to sell their land to the county. Wickham said the fund would have come in handy when the county was offered to buy the property that would become Bowstring.
“We were very lucky that the board recognized the opportunity to acquire the (Bowstring) property,” Wickham said. “But we didn’t have any funds allocated for that. It was a budget amendment to acquire that. The conservation board thought this is a better process.”
Wickham said he knows of landowners interested and that there are benefits to protecting existing conservation properties through these acquisitions.
McDonough, though, said she did not think this was a priority for taxpayers.
“The citizens of Dubuque County haven’t weighed in on, and in my opinion are not even aware that we are transferring money into a land acquisition fund,” she said. “If we do this it will be half a million (dollars) at the same time when you’re asking for $2 million in improvements. That’s big.”
Wickham insisted that the public had weighed in on investing in conservation, both during the planning process and at the ballot box, when he became the top vote-getter of any supervisor.
Preston said the fund would be used judiciously.
“There’s not much state support for land acquisition,” he said. “This allows us to acquire things we wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”