Behrens ready to put focus back on conservation as Tama Co. director

T-R PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER — Newly hired Tama County Conservation Director Curtis Behrens pictured at Otter Creek Lake & Park Nature Center just before Thanksgiving. Behrens is an ISU graduate who has spent the past four years working as the natural resource manager with Jones County Conservation.

TOLEDO — Curtis Behrens was recently hired as Tama County’s next Conservation Director, replacing former director Stephen Mayne who resigned in August. And while Behrens has only been in the position since Nov. 6, he said he’s ready to put the focus of his department back on conservation.

“Obviously my background is very conservation-heavy,” Behrens said on a recent Thursday afternoon during an interview conducted inside the county’s nature center conference room, a room brimming with taxidermied Iowa wildlife.

“If I’m understanding how things have been run out here previously, it seems like there’s been a lot more campground and parks and rec focus.” Behrens explained. “I’d like to – now that we’ve got this lake restoration project done and some new playgrounds taking [shape] – I’d like to shift some of that focus more into catching up on wildlife areas, doing some improvements.

“I want to see more fire going on the ground. I want to see more native trees get planted and a lot more invasives taken out.”

Behrens, 34, certainly has the conservation chops to back up his plans as the new director, holding degrees in biology and wildlife ecology/interpretation from Iowa State University. Since graduating in 2011, he has worked a variety of conservation-related or conservation-adjacent jobs including nearly four years with the Insect Zoo which operates out of ISU’s Dept. of Entomology.

He spent the last four years as the natural resources manager at Jones County Conservation. Prior to Jones he worked as the director of parks and recreation for the City of Sumner.

And while he’s fairly certain he’s not related to Tama County Sanitarian Chris Behrens, he does have deep roots in Iowa with his dad hailing from Sumner and his mom from Waterloo. Many summer vacations growing up were spent at Holiday Lake in Poweshiek County, he said, where his grandparents still live.

But prior to moving to Ames for college, Behrens — who grew up in the large Chicago suburb of St. Charles, Ill. — said he really wasn’t interested in conservation. He thought he would instead become an engineer.

“I was good at engineering but found quickly I was not super passionate about it,” Behrens explained. Soon thereafter he switched his major to biology.

“I interned for Story County Conservation when I was in college, and from there I always knew that — at least with high confidence – that I wanted to be in the county parks system. … Ever since we moved back to Iowa for that parks and rec job in Sumner, I’ve been aiming to get [back] into the parks system and then once I was, well, the tip-top is director. So that’s what I was shooting for.

“I’m super grateful to have it at age 34.”

In his position as the county’s conservation director, Behrens will helm a department that oversees more than a dozen land units throughout the county including the 529-acre county park at Otter Creek Lake and the 60-acre Oxbow Bottoms Wildlife Area, one of the county’s most recent acquisitions. He said Tama County’s structure is very similar to where he was previously in Jones County — right down to the lake restoration.

“The structure and the layout and even the staff are a mirror image to Jones County,” Behrens said. “We just finished a lake restoration, too.”

And while Jones County’s lake refilled quickly — “because we actually had rain,” Behrens pointed out — he said he’s confident Otter Creek Lake will get to that point in the near future as well.

“It will just take some time.”

When asked why the public should care about conservation, Behrens — who admitted he loves public speaking — didn’t hesitate in his response.

“Do you like clean drinking water? Do you like birdwatching? Do you want to see your soil run into the Mississippi River?” Behrens asked rhetorically before continuing, “It is our home, it is our habitat – we are animals just like everything else. Without preserving some of those, conserving some of those, utilizing them in conjunction with stewardship, we’re just going to find ourselves in a wasteland. We’ll have another Dust Bowl, we’ll have another famine. Those are pretty extreme but, to me, it’s simply a matter of taking care of your home just like you do your house. You let your house fall apart, then it becomes unusable. Let your environment fall apart, it becomes unusable. Or, it will recover when we’re long gone and dead.”

When Behrens isn’t focusing on conservation as part of his day job, he said he still likes to spend time outdoors especially with his family which includes two elementary-aged daughters.

“I am a big kayaker. I love being in a kayak or canoe. I love hiking. And I’m going to show my nerdy side here, but I really like just going for a hike to look for flowers and bugs. … My big passion is wetlands and forest ecology. I just love going out and seeing spring ephemerals. Walking through wetlands. I don’t hunt, but I feel like I do everything that hunters do except pull the trigger.”

In the months and years ahead, Behrens is hopeful such a strong affinity for the outdoors will keep him grounded in his role as director.

“I love the actual fieldwork side of things. You know this is very much an administrative position, but I have high confidence that I’ll actually get to be out — potentially teaching as well. So I want to be a little bit more involved, in [front] of people and boots on the ground.”

For those wanting to meet Behrens, the Otter Creek Lake & Park Nature Center office located at 2283 Park Rd. in rural Toledo is generally open to the public Monday through Friday during normal business hours. If the front doors are open, the public is welcome to enter. Otherwise, Behrens can be reached directly at curtis.behrens@tamacounty.org.


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