A new campground is underway at Osborne Park

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Work is underway to create a new campground at Osborne Park, near Elkader. The Clayton County Conservation Board selected a dying pine stand as the location, as it is out of the floodplain, relatively flat and in close proximity to existing structures. The new campground will accommodate 20 pull-through campsites. Seven tent sites are also planned, and it will have a shower house, bathrooms, electric-water hookups and wi-fi to accommodate the modern camper.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


It’s been nearly two decades since the campground at Osborne Park was swept away by back-to-back flood events in 2004, making the location inhospitable and closing the campground. Since then, the Clayton County Conservation Board has looked for alternative options for a relocated campground. 


The process began in 2008 with the master plan for Osborne Park, which looked at putting a campground above Osborne Pond, but that location wasn’t followed through with due to the amount of time spent “developing and diversifying that upland habitat for ground nesting birds,” according to Conservation Board Executive Director Jenna Pollock. 


An alternate location was needed. The board identified the dying pine stand as a “weak point” at Osborne due to several factors, including how close the trees were planted to one another and the fact they had reached maturity and were self-pruning and creating additional demands on maintenance. There’s also lack of a viable market for pines. 


Specifically, the “weak point” determination stems from the fact the dying trees were simply falling down, sometimes two per week, often onto mowed trails. This meant the small maintenance crew had to dedicate time to remove the fallen trees to reopen the trails for public use. Pollock also added the location is out of the floodplain, relatively flat and in close proximity to existing structures, making it an ideal location. 


The project gained further traction in 2018, after the conservation board looked at management strategies through the five-year plan update process and solicited public feedback. Based on that process and the feedback, Pollock said there was a “strong public desire to bring back a campground within Osborne Park.” 


Armed with this knowledge, the board started looking for financial resources to fund the project, currently estimated at $850,000. The first in a long line of grants awarded was the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act (LWCF), which “helped kick start” the project in 2021 with $125,000. Another $149,000 was awarded later that year by the Upper Mississippi Gaming Corporation, as well as $200,000 from the American Rescue Plan Act and $50,000 from the Turkey River Sportsmen, though delays due to Covid stalled the project from officially starting until March of 2022. 


Once work began, the first task was removing the five acres of pine trees from the site, which took place between November and December 2022. Currently, the project is in the survey phase, with the earthwork bidding process waiting for that data to finalize that portion of the project. 


Once completed, which is anticipated to be May 2025 or sooner depending on how quickly work progresses, the new campground will accommodate 20 pull-through campsites. Seven tent sites are planned, and it will have a shower house, bathrooms, electric-water hookups and wi-fi to accommodate the modern camper. 


Of course, the list of amenities doesn’t end there if you ask Pollock. Along with the items specifically related to the campground, Pollock stated, “There are a number of amenities at Osborne that visitors enjoy, such as the native wildlife exhibit, fishing access, paddling access, nature center, hiking trails, walking trails, pioneer village, disc golf, archery range and other educational opportunities.” 


Additionally, Pollock mentioned the sites would be available for online reservations, making it more convenient for visitors to the region. 


Apart from the amenities, Pollock believes there is an economic benefit to the campground, both directly and indirectly, which will positively impact the county. Direct benefits include the fees for camping: Osborne campers are likely to purchase gifts and snacks from the gift shop, a pop from the machine in the nature center and firewood. 


The indirect benefits Pollock listed are quite numerous, including the possibility campers might purchase a fishing license, acquire bait, maybe buy a new pole or fishing line, buy dinner and gas in town or just shop for groceries. There’s also potential for increased business at outfitters and recreational suppliers and possibly an increase in kayak and canoe rentals.  


“Maybe they’ll take in a movie at the theatre on a rainy day, catch an opera house show, do some shopping in the downtown. If Clayton County is the destination for them to stay here, they’ll make additional purchases while they’re visiting, creating a positive economic impact by bringing additional dollars from outside the county into the county,” Pollock added. 


However, there are minor issues with the economic benefits attributed to the campground, specifically the decline in campground users post-pandemic. Furthermore, economic data supplied by Pollock suggested  year-to-date activity is also declining at the other campgrounds managed by Clayton County Conservation. The six listed in the data all saw increases between 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, but for 2022-2023, all are below that peak and even pacing behind the numbers from 2020-2021 despite increased budgets. 


There is also the possibility that costs not covered by the fees associated with the campground, typically used to cover items like electricity usage, sewage removal and maintenance fees, will be covered by property tax dollars. Pollock indicated none of the $850,000 estimated overall cost would be passed on to taxpayers, as the project is expected to rely entirely on grants and other funding resources.  


Moreover, while Pollock indicated a “strong public support” from the surveys and public feedback acquired throughout the process, there were some criticisms associated with the project. One is how the project aligns with the mission of the board, which is to “promote the health and general welfare of the people; and to encourage preservation, conservation, education and recreation through responsible use and appreciation of our natural resources.” 


One confidential respondent actually said they should “keep it primitive,” arguing it’s about “wildlife conservation,” and that there is “nothing conservation about throwing a bunch of concrete pads up and backing your RV in.”  


Another person replied, “The downside for me is trailer/campers—sort of making the austere woodland less natural. If you do proceed…I would limit the time spent there to a week or two so that it is primarily a nature center and doesn’t become primarily a campground. That is what is special of Osborne—natural setting, gorgeous trees and quiet, as natural as it can be.” 


Another added, “The nature center is more important than a campground to me…” 


Others respondents supported the project, stating comments like, “This is a great idea,” “Awesome!” “What a great plan!” and “That would be awesome to see the campground reopen.” 


For Pollock, conservation is all about balance.


“The existing infrastructure at Osborne supports a heavy recreation and education focus within Osborne Park. We are inviting the public to come play here, learn here, explore here,” she said.


Her own support stems from the fact “Osborne is the flagship of Clayton County Conservation and there are a wealth of amenities in the park for the public to utilize. Developing this campground, as a desired public amenity, would directly connect visitors and residents more directly with these existing amenities and continue to build a supportive foundation for the conservation department.”

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