Park manager's big job on the prairie

"It's easier to describe what I don't do," remarks Rene Lee, park manager (a salaried DNR position) at Governor Nelson State Park in Waunakee. She isn't kidding. Lee is currently the park's sole full-time employee, operating and maintaining the entire 422-acre park with a limited term employee (LTE) and occasional volunteer helping out.

One might call it Rene's Park.

She rattles off just a few of her responsibilities: "I do minor plumbing, have fiscal responsibility, purchase supplies, hire and fire, do law enforcement, maintenance, grounds work, land management, and educate visitors," she said. As if that's not enough, she also oversees another property, the Cross Plains Ice Age Reserve Unit.

This day, Lee is concerned with hiring summer help. She's looking for two rangers and a visitor services associate to greet visitors and sell park passes through the office window. Later, she may hire a few other LTEs. With the state's next fiscal year starting July 1, Lee won't know until after that date about future summer staffing levels.

It's not that she minds being on her own. She simply doesn't have much time to think about it.

Lee has worked at the park for nearly 10 years, attracted by the surrounding nature and, for the most part, the people she interacts with, but this was not her planned vocation. At one time, she was a mechanical engineer volunteering at various parks, but she soon became hooked. She completed a four-month basic recruit training program at MATC, earned a Department of Justice certification, was hired by the DNR, then got credentialed. And yes, she carries a gun.

This morning didn't start out as she had planned. Just after 8 a.m., she was asked to help with a two-acre controlled burn at Aztalan State Park, east of Lake Mills. "For those burns, a required number of personnel are needed, so we help each other," she said, explaining that controlled burns regenerate prairie grass and forests, rejuvenate the native environment, and eliminate invasive species. Governor Nelson State Park will undergo a controlled burn of its own soon, she remarks, including about 10 acres of woodland and nearly 150 acres of prairie. "In the woods, we try to burn everything except the trees – branches, logs. I'll probably have a minimum of six people helping, and it can be an all-day event." Burns are conducted every year on a rotating basis, she explained.

Though Governor Nelson State Park does not allow camping, it is widely used for hiking, skiing, boating, fishing, field trips, and special events. It also has a pet swim area and boat landing. At this time of year, Lee is inspecting and preparing the buildings and getting ready to install the park's three piers. "I'll have to put the swim lines out by May 15th," she added, which means donning a pair of waders and getting into the 40-degree water. "That's a two-person job," she says, matter-of-factly.

At the fish house, closed since November, she inspects the plumbing, which was pumped with RV antifreeze over the winter. She'll reopen the building and flush the pipes soon, a welcome inconvenience compared to the hundreds of dollars she'd otherwise spend to heat the building all winter.

The park has flush toilets, porta-potties and a pit toilet, which she maintains, but luckily, a service handles the real dirty work.

At the shoreline, winter's ice heaves have repositioned a huge boulder that she'll need to have moved before one pier can be attached to its interface. When she has time, she will also handle minor pier maintenance.

Just then, as if on cue, a stray cat cries out from under one of the piers. Lee coaxes the wet, but obviously tame, cat back to the park office, where she gives it a bowl of water and a convenient slice of bologna from the fridge. "I think I'll name him Curly," she says (referring to his mane), admitting that she has several cats of her own at home. "He's a talker," she smiles, above Curly's wails. Tomorrow she'll call the Humane Society.

This month, Lee will make sure everything in the park is operational and train her new staff, especially in emergency protocol. "We have to make sure all phone numbers are correct in the event of emergencies – like tornadoes, animal bites, drownings, finding bodies, plane crashes – you name it," she says. Park rangers (of which she's one) are also trained in first-aid and CPR.

Lee's best days are spent on the 23-year-old prairie educating visitors. It took an infusion of seeds from the UW Arboretum to convert the land from the farm it once was into the prairie it is today. "There aren't many true prairies left that haven't been overtaken by farms or housing," she notes.

The workload, she admits, can be hard, but rife with natural wonders. One year, a couple of bluebirds nested in "her" bluebird box. "There was a mom, dad, and five eggs. Then, a sparrow killed the mom, and I buried her. For the next 10 days we fed the babies worms until they could open their eyes. Once they did, we'd leave other worms out so the father could feed them. By the time 'Pokey,' the last chick, came out, he was almost too fat to fit through the hole," she laughs. To her knowledge, all five survived.