Fort Dodge wrestled with the question for decades: What could it do with thousands of acres of played-out gypsum mines on the outskirts of town?
The answer came in 2000 when Larry Leiting, then chairman of the Fort Dodge Convention and Visitors Bureau, suggested converting the area into a park for ATVs, motorcycles and snowmobiles.
“I’d been riding for more than 30 years, and the idea came when I saw a group of people were talking about getting an off-highway park started in Pleasant Hill,” Larry said. “I thought, Why can’t we do this in Webster County?”
Local leaders and the gypsum companies loved the idea, but their road to adventure was full of twists and turns.
Gypsum is one Iowa’s most valuable minerals, and the Fort Dodge site boasts one of the purest deposits in the world. Gypsum formed in the area about 145 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period, and miners began extracting it in the early 1900s for wall plaster, insulation and fertilizer. These days, it’s used primarily for sheetrock.
After miners extract the gypsum, the remaining soil is reconstructed into open fields, rolling hills and cliffs that are not always suitable for crops or development.
So Fort Dodge officials knew Larry’s idea was a gold mine of economic opportunity. They soon enlisted the gypsum companies, state government officials and other local leaders to map out a plan.
Local officials and the gypsum companies worked with Rep. Helen Miller and Sen. Daryl Beall to draft legislation about liability issues, and that move paved the way for United States Gypsum Company, National Gypsum, and Georgia Pacific Gypsum to donate land.
Meanwhile, Larry and two partners — Matt Cooper and Rick Williams — formed the Webster County Wheelers and worked with the Webster County Improvement Corporation to accept and manage the land.
The park opened to great fanfare in 2005 and has added more acres, riding trails and amenities in recent years, including campsites, shelters and restrooms. Today the 800-acre Gypsum City Off-Highway Vehicle Park is the largest of its kind in Iowa, with 70 miles of off-road trails nestled among re-populated forest and lakes.
“All the reclaimed area has been re-wooded, and the lakes are so clear you can actually see the fish,” said Dennis Plautz, CEO of the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance. “We have four lakes, and people can come out and camp and fish in addition to riding the trails.”
The park also includes a 1.5-mile professionally designed motocross track and three separate training tracks for young children. This summer will bring more campsites with water, electricity and sanitary sewer infrastructure.
While the park has been supported by 27 grants totaling $5.4 million over the years and is designated a state park by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, it has become more than a playground for off-highway riding, camping and fishing.
Two or three times a month, Dennis loads up his Can Am Commander side-by-side, an off-road four-wheeler, and rides the trails with his son, Adam, who has a form of autism called Angelman Syndrome.
“There’s a great benefit here that has touched us personally because it’s something we can do together and something he enjoys,” Dennis said. “He sees (the Can Am) come out of the garage and he’s ready to go.”
The 2017 Preserve Iowa Summit will offer participants tours of the Gypsum City Off-Highway Vehicle Park and the Flintkote Pit, and active gypsum mine operated by United States Gypsum Company.
— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs