Talk to Kate Zimmerman and it’s impossible not to admire her passion for nature, wildlife and the outdoors. “I have loads of it (enthusiasm),” she says. “And it isn’t because of Mountain Dew!” For Kate, she is right where she says she is supposed to be, doing exactly what she believes she was born to do — working as part of a conservation board in her home state where she manages nine parks, trails and wildlife areas encompassing more than 1,000 acres.
In Iowa, each of its 99 counties has its own conservation board. These consist of local natural resource management and outdoor recreation agencies tasked to encourage the development and conservation of natural resources, provide public recreation programs and educate residents about nature.
For the last decade, Zimmerman has been Director of the Ringgold County Conservation Board in Mount Ayr, Iowa. Never heard of Mount Ayr? You aren’t alone.
In fact, Zimmerman admits that prior to applying for her current position, she too knew next to nothing about the rural community tucked away in south central Iowa. However, since accepting the job and moving to the small Iowa town, it’s been her goal to do all she can to put Ringgold County on the map.
“Like other rural towns, it’s easy to overlook us,” she says. “But when you visit Ringgold and see the beautiful, old rolling hills — like something straight out of an old western movie, you start to understand why this is such a great area.”
In order to accomplish what she had in her mind and shine a light on the beauty of Mount Ayr, Zimmerman had to start from within. “In 2010 when I took this job, I challenged the conservation board to go from a department that was status quo, to one running full speed, 24/7,” Kate said. “For a small community to hire an outsider, not look at me like I was a crazy person and then jump on board – it’s been pretty amazing!”
Kate’s enthusiasm spread through the county like wildfire. “From the start, people were excited,” she said. “I quickly learned that they desperately wanted this service.” Although Mount Ayr’s conservation board wasn’t very active and even though she didn’t have any materials (other than a few furs), Kate immediately started an environmental education program and had roughly 70 programs running within her first year.
Fast forward to today, Zimmerman leads more than 200 environmental programs annually for the community and has more assets at her disposal, including one of her best friends. “For the last six years, I’ve taken my buddy Rufus, a live owl, with me to programs,” she said. “I received my training and permits to handle permanently injured birds like my friend — which is a big draw. Now with the wide range of programs, tools and unique things we are doing, it’s almost to the point where we have created our own monster!”
This monster comes in the form of public programming, supportive services where she visits the people with disabilities and nursing homes, presentations to Mount Ayr youth and visiting with anyone who will allow Kate to talk to them about the outdoors. In addition to education initiatives, Zimmerman also leads events for the conservation board.
In October, Kate will direct the sixth-annual Haunted Halloween Hike. Then during the holiday season, Zimmerman will run the annual Holiday Lights in the Park event. Both are the conservation board’s two biggest fundraisers and attract visitors from inside and out of the county.
However, neither the education programs or events compare to what Zimmerman says, without hesitation, is her proudest accomplishment. A little more than two years ago, Kate fulfilled her dream when she cut the ribbon and opened the Dragoon Trace Nature Center in Mount Ayr. The nature center encourages visitors to make a personal connection with nature. It also offers opportunities to discover, experience and enjoy all the county and state’s natural resources that Kate loves so much.
A spotlight in southern Iowa and the only environmental education facility in the surrounding counties, the nature center was funded by multiple grants, memorials, business and personal donations. In 2019, the nature center received the Iowa Tourism Award for Outstanding Attraction — showing that others enjoy the venue as much as Zimmerman.
“The nature center is going to be a huge part of helping people understand, educate and inspire them to love wildlife and our habitat as much as I do,” Kate said. “It’s going to be here for years and years, hopefully inspiring future generations to become champions of the outdoors and help protect our wildlife.”
The awards didn’t stop with the nature center. Last February, Kate received the much-deserved Excellence in Action Award from the Iowa State Association of Counties. She was recognized for her creativity, innovation, leadership, cooperation with others and perseverance for all her work with the county conservation.
“I was pretty shocked,” Kate said. “I’ve never worked for the acknowledgement. I do it because I love nature and am passionate about it. I think that is where my passion translates the best. Showing I care and getting others to care too. I can’t change the world by myself. But if I can change one person and they change another - those little changes will bring Iowa back to the wildlife haven it once was.”