The National Association of State Park Directors today announced its annual award recipients for contributions and support of state parks and state park systems across the United States. “It is always great to recognize the amazing supporters that give of themselves to America’s State Parks,” commented Dominic Bravo, NASPD President. NASPD recognized the contributions of The Friends of Darling State Park with a President’s Award for a local organization. The award was presented Thursday at NASPD’s annual meeting at French Lick Resort, French Lick, Indiana. The Friends of Lake Darling State Park in SE Iowa State Park formed their non-profit group of volunteers in 2001 with their mission statement “Make the Great Park of Lake Darling Extraordinary.” Beginning with small work projects at the park, such as shingling roofs, picking up litter and cleaning grills, they have increased their numbers and projects to carry out the mission of preventing the deterioration of the lake and park facilities. The group’s primary fundraiser each year was collecting cans and bottles for park uses and turning these in for redemption to help pay for park improvements. This project raises about $2,000 each year.
The group has grown over the years from a great but small number wanting to help where it could in labor and provide a little extra money for projects, into a group that has changed the park in many ways with improvements that many thought impossible. The group’s efforts demonstrate what can be done when people are committed to a project, focused on goals, and determined to make it happen. Lake Darling was developed in 1950, as Iowa’s largest manmade lake, with 302 surface acres. Legendary Iowa political cartoonist Ding Darling participated in the gate closing ceremony. Soon came campgrounds, a beach building and picnic areas, as the park became well-known as a wonderful place of recreation. Soil runoff from surrounding land use practices reduced the lake to 267 surface acres by 2008, with undesirable fish such as the common carp which kept the lake water in a state of high turbidity, making poor water quality, poor fishing, and fewer people visiting. This decline in water quality led to the park’s being labeled a “Mud Hole,” by local newspapers. The Iowa DNR began renovation work in 2000, to help control the watershed, rebuild the dam, remove silt from the lake bottom, and restock the lake with desirable fish.
In 2006, the legislature, focusing on this lake renovation and the park, allotted $250,000 to construct a lodge. DNR staff, local legislators and the friends group studied the plan and decided to build a lodge at the beach, which involved tearing down the dilapidated beach house, putting up a small shelter and modern bathroom next to the beach for visitors, and construct ADA sidewalks to connect all the structures, at an estimated one million dollars. The DNR put $120,000 toward this effort, placing the burden for raising $600,000 in a 12-month period on the friends group. Accustomed to raising $2,000 a year from cans and bottles, they accepted the challenge and achieved their goal through grants, phone calls, bake sales, auctions, and countless hours of hard work. The lodge seats 200 people with a full kitchen and bathrooms. The open house and ribbon cutting showed off the other beach projects. The friends group raised $20,000 in 2008 for a playground, and in 2010, it raised $50,000 in funds and in-kind labor to construct an ADA fishing bridge, which also connects the two campgrounds.
In 2012, the friends partnered with the local Izaak Walton League and raised over $265,000 to construct an ADA concrete fishing trail, which is over a mile long, going from the campground to the upper portion of the lake where the silt dam is located. Most of the trail runs along the shoreline with 20 “bump out” areas and a curb at the end, along people in wheelchairs to get next to the water and to cast into areas where fishing structures were added during the lake renovation. It also connects to an ADA fishing pier and to boat rental, the beach are, and the lodge. Partnering with the Iowa DNR in 2013, the friends group raised $400,000 to construct six two- bedroom modern cabins with kitchens and bathrooms. These opened to the public for rental this summer. Another amenity was the group’s partnering with a local artist to construct a life size bronze bust of Ding Darling, for whom the park is named. Using a grant from the Iowa Arts Council, the bust is set on a limestone pillar constructed by the friends, with the DNR adding interpretive panels. This is the first stop for many first-time visitors. The friends and the state also renamed the highway going past the park the “Ding Darling Memorial Highway.”
To complement the work of art, the group raised $105,000 to construct the “Ding Darling Interpretive Pathway,” a half-mile long concrete ADA path, lined with interpretive panels focused on Darlings’ life and accomplishments. This connects the new and existing cabins to the beach and boat rental, and is a great place for visitors as well as school children on field trips to learn about Ding Darling and conservation. It was completed this summer. The long process of lake renovation brought the lake back to the original 302 surface acres. The official grand opening Sept.17, 2014, was exactly 54 years to the day when Ding Darling took part in the original gate closing ceremony. Over the years, the friends group became friends with a documentary film director who produced a film on Ding Darling. They helped him create a documentary on Lake Darling, focusing on conservation, local groups, communities, and neighbors all working together with state government to rebuild this lake and park, and on the influence that Ding Darling’s legacy had on this project. The friends partnered by being a major sponsor to the documentary, titled Darling is Back! The Restoration of Lake Darling, which aired on Iowa Public Television in the spring of 2016.
The mission of the National Association of State Park Directors is to promote and advance the state park systems of America for their own significance, as well as for their important contributions to the nation’s environment, heritage, health and economy. Collectively, America’s State Parks include more than 10,250 areas encompassing over 18.3 million acres, and received 760 million visitors in 2015.