Aug 10, 2023 6:29 PM

52 Faces: From quiet country kid to advocate

Posted Aug 10, 2023 6:29 PM
<b>Chris Lee, the executive director of Des Moines County Conservation, is shown on Monday, July 31 outside his office building. Photos/John Lovretta</b>
Chris Lee, the executive director of Des Moines County Conservation, is shown on Monday, July 31 outside his office building. Photos/John Lovretta

By William Smith

Despite his understated social charms, Des Moines County Conservation Director Chris Lee is a proud introvert. His comfort zone is the natural world around him.

Lee never imagined he would lead an entire county department. He never wanted that.

“I wanted to be the guy on the tractor,” he said. “And yet here I am, sitting in the director role where I am in the office most of the day.”

For a while, Lee was that guy on the tractor. And he loved it. But he realized that his talent, intelligence, and persistence could be used better elsewhere.

“I knew I could have a bigger impact by leading an organization and helping the people that I lead to do the work that they’re best suited for,” he said. “I wouldn’t be just the guy driving the tractor. And so I stepped into that, and ever since then, it’s been my singular focus to be the best leader I can possibly be.”

Lee found something out about himself – he enjoys leadership. He loves identifying people’s passions and talents and fostering those within a job that suits them.

“Some of my employees like to be around other people. Some would just prefer to work outdoors by themselves everyday,” he said.

A Quiet Country Kid

Lee is an anomaly among the classic Iowa country boy archetype — a passionate writer and orator who speaks only with politeness. 

He loves hunting, fishing, and anything else you can do outdoors. 

A baseball cap covers his head most days (sans formal occasions), and camouflage is a preferred clothing color. So are blue jeans.

But Lee’s connection to nature goes deeper than recreation and a fun weekend of hunting. His mental health depends on that connection. It energizes him. It keeps him sane.

“At some point, I realized that this is therapy for me,” he said.

Daily therapy if possible, especially when Lee has a day full of meetings and social interactions.

“I’ve just got to get into the woods,” he said.

Lee is a Burlington native and suffered from depression at an early age. His family was going through a divorce, which affected Lee more than he realized.

But Lee could always escape the drama and retreat to the outdoors, thanks to his grandmother’s cabin. Disappearing into the woods for the night wasn’t unusual. He even had parental permission.

“I grew up playing in the backwaters and was outside all the time,” he said.

Lee quickly developed a close relationship with his stepfather — Randy Lee — who was just as much an outdoorsman as Lee. He doesn’t call him stepdad, though. Just dad.

“That (the outdoors) was really what defined me growing up,” Lee said. “I didn’t like sports and wasn’t really good at sports. I think I played Little League for a year-and-a-half or something, but that got in the way of my fishing.”

By the time Lee graduated high school, he not only knew what he wanted to do with his life — he knew why.

“I wanted to contribute to the longevity and sustainability of natural resources because they were so important to me growing up,” he said.

Like most high school graduates, Lee wanted to leave Burlington as quickly as he could. But after a year of college in Georgia, he wanted to come back.

“I went down there and realized pretty quickly that this place (Des Moines County) is home,” he said. “I love the South. We travel down there nearly every winter. But this is home.”

Planting Roots 

As much as he loved home, Lee had to leave it again to kick-start his conservation career. He finished up college at Iowa State University with a degree in animal ecology and a minor in forestry. He spent a couple of years at Southeastern Community College and returned to Georgia to intern with the forestry department.

“I always knew I wanted to come back here,” he said.

Three years out of college, in November of 2008, Lee landed a job as the natural resource manager for Des Moines County. He couldn’t believe his luck. 

“You usually have to bounce around quite a bit in conservation. I was one of the lucky ones,” Lee said.

Two years later, Lee was a field supervisor for the conservation department. Three years later, he became the new Des Moines County Conservation Director.

“The director position opened up, and I really didn’t think that would happen,” he said.

Since then, Lee has been instrumental in developing the Big Hollow Recreation Area into a massive campground that continues to grow. Reservations on certain holidays are made up to a year in advance, and expansion plans are in place.

Surrounding the campgrounds is an outdoor park that has everything a kid needs. Fishing, shooting, an observatory, canoes. Lee and his crew hold several special events every year, attracting hundreds of locals and visitors.

“Most kids don’t have the advantages I did. They don’t have thousands of acres of land you can explore,” he said. “We want to give kids a chance to do that.” 

Lee gets giddy when he talks about it. Not just Big Hollow, but the expansion of Burlington and Des Moines County as a whole. He sees every angle of potential success cresting simultaneously, from the explosion of rental properties to the increased tourism from campgrounds and cruise ships.

“There’s a lot of overlapping industries, and I sit on several committees, and I see it all coming together. We bring a lot of people from outside of this county,” he said. 

“We document visitors from about 40 states and half of Iowa’s counties every summer, just through the campground. We estimate about 50,000 people come through that park every year. And that’s a lot of out-of-towners. I want to bring people here and show them what a great community this is.”

Lee is certainly invested. He and his wife have two children — ages 5 and 8 — and they are just now starting to discover the same outdoor ecology Lee did as a kid. They have all the time in the world.

“I’m a lifer. I’ll die here,” Lee said.