Olson reflects on 25 years with Conservation

November marked Michele Olson’s 25th year as the Jones County Naturalist. She provides programs throughout the county, promoting natural resources. (Express file photos)

Olson (second from left) is pictured here with Conservation staff and board members at the 2019 opening of Central Park and the completion of the Lake Restoration Project.
Kim Brooks
Express Editor

     In mid-November of 1997, Jones County welcomed a new member to the Conservation Department: Michele Olson.

   Twenty-five years later, Olson recalls the changes she’s been a part of through Conservation, and the positive impact she’s making as Jones County’s naturalist.

   When Olson was hired, she replaced Brenda Kell (1995-97). Olson is just the second naturalist to serve the county.

   At the time of her hiring, Keith Rowley (1994-98) was the Conservation director. Since then, Olson has worked with three other directors: Brad Halterman (1998-2003), Larry Gullett (2004-13), and Brad Mormann.

   Olson came to Jones County via Clay and O’Brien counties, where she was their first naturalist on staff. According to an Express article from Dec. 10, 1997, in Clay and O’Brien counties, “Olson was responsible for building a nature education program from the ground up.”

   When Olson moved to Jones County, she was able to take the naturalist job and expand upon it. She works with five school districts and three parochial schools throughout the county.

   “I’ve enjoyed the whole time I’ve worked here,” expressed Olson. “I basically developed the program, and now we partner with so many different entities.”

   She said she’s enjoyed having the freedom to take the education program develop it further.

   “The county is blessed with so many natural resources,” she praised.

   Twenty-five years ago, Jones County didn’t have the 20-plus public conservation areas that it has today.

   “We’ve added eight to 10 since I’ve been here,” she noted.

   These public areas would not have been possible, Olson said, without those partners such as REAP, Pheasants Forever, and the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

   In her 25 years here, Olson has seen many physical changes when it comes to the Nature Center, Central Park, and the nature areas. But some changes haven’t been so obvious such as technology. Olson’s guest columns appear in the county newspapers. Early on, she laughed that she had to send those columns and press releases via snail-mail.

   She’s also seen a change, for the better, when it comes to the county and Conservation’s website, and the implementation of social media to promote her programs.

   Olson has to keep up on the latest and greatest when it comes to school curriculum. In her role, she assists the schools by providing programming to meet the core curriculum requirements.

   “The amount of things teachers have to cover in class has changed over the years,” she noted. “It’s constantly changing.”

   Within the next few years, Olson want to put together a list of all of the nature education programs offered through Conservation so the schools have it at their fingertips.

   “I try to think outside of the box and see what other counties are doing.”

   Olson also gets ideas from the Iowa Association of Naturalists. She’s been a member of the association before she started working in Jones County.

   “I serve on several committees,” she said.

   Another change in education has been a drop in fieldtrips.

   “Schools don’t take as many fieldtrips anymore,” she said. “COVID played a role in that.”

   Central Park has become a popular place for schools and classes to spend time at.

   Olson has also implemented many programs in her time here: School of the Wild, Youth Conservation Crew, and Junior Naturalist Program.

   “It gets kids out in nature,” she said, plain and simple. “And they development leadership skills.”

   With her office based in the Nature Center at Central Park, Olson has seen for herself the changes at the park, many brought about from the devastating August 2020 derecho. There was also the lake restoration project that was completed in 2019.

   “The Nature Center has also been renovated two different times,” she said, “in 2008 and 2012.”

   There are some things Olson would change about the facility to allow for larger groups for public programs, and additional storage.

   Several years ago, the Friends of Jones County Conservation and Nature Center was formed, honoring former County Supervisor Keith Dirks who passed away in 2015. The Friends group supports Conservation through fundraisers and volunteerism.

   “The core group of three or so are really active,” praised Olson. “Only one person can do so much.”

   Other partners Olson has worked with throughout the years include the county libraries, Jones County Extension, Every Child Reads-Jones County, Kirkwood/Workplace Learning, Monticello Parks and Recreation, and AmeriCorps.

   Last summer, Conservation worked with Every Child Reads to install a permanent storywalk along a trail at Central Park. Olson chooses books that reflect nature and encourages kids to explore the outdoors during all seasons.

   “It’s been a fun project,” she said. “A lot of people come here for specifically looking for the storywalk.”

   Olson hopes to put together a map of the park that highlights the major areas of emphasis, including the storywalk.

   Again, thanks to COVID, though for the better, Conservation has seen more people spending more time outdoors. In 2020, the number of visitors to Central Park skyrocketed.

   “People got out and did things,” Olson said as opposed to be cooped up inside.

   Olson said she has no plans to leave Jones County quite yet, and still enjoys all aspects of her job that brought her here 25 years ago.

   “I love teaching people about our natural resources. It’s hard to value and appreciate something unless you get to experience it. People will hopefully make good choices and take care of what we have once they experience it. It makes a huge difference.

   “It’s fun to watch someone discover and learn something new as they experience nature,” continued Olson.

   She said the Conservation Board and Friends group are both so supportive of Conservation; they wouldn’t be able to offer the programs and services they do without that support.


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