DNR official explains reassignment of Yellow River State Forest Ranger

by Lissa Blake

Many visitors to Yellow River State Forest are less than happy about the recent reassignment of longtime Park Ranger Rylan Retallick to the Volga River Recreation Area. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently announced Retallick’s time would be redistributed, with him spending 75 percent of his time at Volga and only 25 percent at Yellow River. Local residents, including members of the Friends of Yellow River State Forest (YRSF), have expressed concerns about the future safety of Yellow River State Forest users in light of the reassignment. The Allamakee County Board of Supervisors and Allamakee County Sheriff Clark Mellick also penned separate letters to the Iowa DNR, questioning the decision to cut Retallick’s hours at Yellow River State Forest.


Aaron Buss, a frequent visitor to Yellow River State Forest from East Moline, IL, said he and his father have participated in events happening at Yellow River for many years. “I am from the Quad Cities area and my family and I have been coming to Yellow River State Forest for over 10 years now. Our primary activities are camping, exploring, hiking and fishing … enjoying time with old friends and meeting new ones,” he said. Buss said he feels the most important reason to maintain a full-time ranger is, first and foremost, safety. “There has never been an issue with myself having to worry about the well-being of myself, my children, extended family and friends. Seeing Rylan drive through during the day, smiling and acknowledging you as a camper puts a smile on your face and puts you at ease. It’s nice to know someone is there, ‘just in case,” said Buss. Buss added having Retallick make the rounds at the campgrounds definitely puts people at ease. “He stops and talks. He interacts. He is part of the park. I have shared a cup of coffee, a bowl of cobbler, and just some good old-fashioned laughter with him and other people around the campfire… I’ve been blessed to have him at my camp and other times to see him at others,” he added.


The Friends of Yellow River State Forest Facebook group has been extremely active in trying to raise awareness about the change in staffing at the park. Primary concerns include safety of visitors, protection of resources, response time during emergencies and the excellent work of Retallick. A representative of the group explained, “There is no cell phone service in any of the campgrounds, and the rural sheriff’s department often does not have a deputy less than a half-hour away most of the time should trouble does arise. There is no way for the ranger to respond to situations when at another park (Volga) more than an hour away. Having a ranger present has literally saved lives, including evacuating during flash floods, assisting with lost persons, burns, fights, domestics, etc. Without a ranger present, a camper must waste precious minutes navigating to the top of the hill to even get cell service to call 911, and then wait for a volunteer ambulance service to form a crew and drive to the campgrounds.” In addition, the group feels the “mere presence of law enforcement deters people from breaking the rules. The park ranger acts as a peacekeeper, law enforcement and mayor of a small community with an ever-changing population every weekend. The ranger has the training to diffuse and de-escalate situations before they lead to altercations. The mere presence of a park ranger prevents many situations that could cause families to not return, such as partying campers getting out of hand,” said the representative. In addition, the Friends group worries about protecting the endangered and critical species inhabiting the forest, such as the Northern Long-eared Bat, Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, Northern Wild Monkshood, Prairie Bush-Clover, Western Prairie Fringed Orchid, Bald Eagle, Bobolink, Cerulean Warbler, Eastern Whippoorwill, Golden-Winged Warbler, Red-Headed Woodpecker, Willow Flycatcher and Wood Thrush, to name a few. The group also fears that once people learn there is little law enforcement at Yellow River, teens and others with little respect for trail and campground rules will move in. “There will be an increase in illegal hunting and fishing activity. Many families have camped at YRSF for generations, and the lack of law enforcement will drive the families away,” said the group.


When asked how he feels the Allamakee County Sheriff’s Department’s role at Yellow River State Forest will change, Sheriff Clark Mellick said it will remain the same. “We can enforce the law, but I can’t ask my guys to enforce things like campground rules,” said Mellick, adding those are park rules, not County ordinances. Mellick said Yellow River is only one part of the county and his officers will continue their other duties per usual. “We will do what we can, but we have a whole county to cover,” he said.


In response to criticism of the DNR reassigning Retallick, Todd Coffelt, Bureau Chief of State Parks, Forests and Preserves, said it is the DNR’s duty to follow Iowa Code with regard to each of the State’s park resources. “Yellow River State Forest is managed for its forest resources, while Volga is designated as a recreation area. Yellow River’s goal as a resource is to keep it a rustic experience for visitors. With regard to law enforcement, our priority is Volga. It has more visitors,” said Coffelt. Coffelt said throughout 2020 the DNR reviewed data regarding park visits throughout Iowa. When a vacancy occurred at Volga, the DNR looked at it as an opportunity to reassign someone without asking them to move. “And Volga has a greater need for a full-time ranger,” said Coffelt. Coffelt added in its review, the DNR tried to align the public’s demand with the human resources that were available. “Volga has a designated need for a full-time ranger. Volga has a park manager and six seasonal staff. Yellow River has three full-time employees and a campground host. Camping is a minor part of the focus for Yellow River as a forest resource,” said Coffelt.


Coffelt added the DNR considered data and input from countless resources before reworking Retallick’s duties. “At Yellow River, we want the resource to sell the experience. We need to manage the resource so people can get access to it,” he said. Coffelt said a lot of thought, including what was best for each park, went into the decision. “The reassignment allowed us to fill a demonstrated need at Volga while keeping one of our staff from having to move,” he said. “We’ll keep watch on the situation and will be reevaluating it on a regular basis.”

Friends of Yellow River State Forest encourages everyone to contact their legislators explaining why a full-time ranger is needed at Yellow River State Forest. The group asks that those who are interested take 30 seconds to sign this petition.