O’Brien County Naturalist Resigns

O’Brien County, Iowa — Shock and surprise reverberated throughout O’Brien County with the spread of the news of O’Brien County Conservation receiving the resignation of Naturalist Charlene Elyea. When Elyea submitted her resignation she made no public comments about her decision.

On Tuesday September 8th Denise Steffens read a prepared statement to the O’Brien County Board of Supervisors about the matter. Several members of Little Sioux Valley Conservation Association (LSVCA) attended, as well. According to president Darren Johnson, to get clarification about the function of the Naturalist between the two organizations – O’Brien County Conservation and Little Sioux Valley Conservation Association (LSVCA)) –  going forward. LSVCA is an approximately 20-year-old not for profit association whose mission is to assist in fundraising to the county’s conservation efforts and the Prairie Heritage Center (PHC).

In her prepared statement, Steffens complemented the resources of O’Brien County, identifying both Prairie Heritage Center and the former Naturalist among those resources. Steffens also voiced concerns about an apparent trend by O’Brien County Conservation Board (OCCB) for emphasis on hunting/fishing and less on PHC and the Naturalist position. Steffens took the liberty to point out the absence of approved uses of public lands in O’Brien County outside of hunting or fishing. Two specific activities cited were equestrian or biking trails. There are 942 DNR acres in O’Brien County and more than 1600 acres of public lands in Waterman Township alone.

Steffens included some statistics about the draw the Prairie Heritage Center creates. She included numbers of four of PHC’s largest annual events, the 13,000 annual visitors to the facility for educational and recreational purposes and noting that PHC has recently cited visitors of over 100,000 people, from all 50 states and 26 foreign countries. Steffens stated the cut in hours to PHC and suggests that it remain a strategic focus of the O’Brien County Conservation Board.

Steffens explained she had been doing some research, including reading OCCB minutes over recent months in an effort to understand what could cause Elyea to choose to resign. Steffens said, in the words of a board member of O’Brien County Conservation and the O’Brien County Board of Supervisors, they “consider Charlene among the best naturalists in the nation.” Steffens asked several questions about reducing Elyea’s influence and responsibility, moving the Naturalist’s office from the main floor of PHC to the basement and how did the receptionist become her boss? Steffens also asked about the salary cut of $6550 per year to the naturalist position. Another significant concern Steffens presented was about formalizing county funded work duties of the Naturalist for the benefit of LSVCA, which is a separate entity.

Sherry Bootsma responded to Steffens. Bootsma thanked Steffens for quoting her, agreeing the Elyea is one of the best in the state. Bootsma explained that the effort of the board was to allow the Naturalist to give more time to Naturalist activities and less administrative time. The new job description of the Naturalist formalizes bookkeeping and other administrative tasks for LSVCA. Steffens expressed concern for tax dollars being used for private not for profit organization functions.

Bruce Morrison also attended the regular board meeting. Morrison has been part of Prairie Heritage Center since its early inception. He said of Prairie Heritage Center, “I don’t want to lose this asset. I totally give the credit for building the place to her (Elyea).”

Johnson explained his personal point of view by recognizing that Elyea is a great loss to O’Brien County. The LSVCA meets quarterly, supporting education and outreach for its main pillar, the Prairie Heritage Center. He went on to say that Elyea’s work will be difficult to duplicate. He made certain to clarify that the LSVCA board members’ purpose for attending the board meeting Tuesday afternoon was for fact-finding. Clarifying that he was not assigning blame or pointing fingers he also said, “I am disappointed with the circumstances surrounding her (Elyea’s) resignation. He described the Naturalist’s role with LSVCA as a liaison between them, OCCB and PHC in general, saying Elyea often provided updates to LSVCA by recapping events, outreach efforts and grant opportunities. Its goal was to fund and friend raise for conservation. Among its sponsored events and activities are the annual Bison Burger Feed and Lawn concert, as well as the gift shop.

LSVCA is a completely separate entity from any county departments. Johnson said that the job description was confusing to the LSVCA. Johnson said he was “still cloudy on what role (the job) is going to entail. I got mixed messages at the meeting.”

The published job description provided by Bootsma during the supervisor meeting included many tasks that benefit LSVCA. The description online at 5:00 pm Tuesday removed any duties for LSVCA. It is unknown what authority allowed the changes.

Johnson said he is saddened Elyea chose to move on. He now is looking forward to a clear vision of the role of the Naturalist with Little Sioux Valley Conservation Association board members.

As of late Tuesday afternoon there was no response from the O’Brien County Attorney, Rachael Becker, about any tax-funded job duties for a private not for profit organization without payment from the private entity to the county.

There is a regular O’Brien County Conservation Board meeting Wednesday September 9 at 6:00 pm at the Prairie Heritage Center, 4931 Yellow Avenue, southeast of Sutherland just off Highway 10.

Story courtesy of our news partner, the O’Brien County Bell-Times-Courier.



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