Happy Trails: County parks director retires after nearly 30 years of improving outdoors
By Heather McDonald
Gary Speckmann sat behind his desk, shuffled papers strewn about as he finished up the day. He didn’t have long to go, not just in the day, but in the job.
“I always told my wife I didn’t want to be one of those crabby old guys, that she had to stop me before I became that. Well, I’m that crabby old guy,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s time.”
Speckmann, 61, retired Jan. 13 following a weekend working at the ski hill of Standing Rocks County Park in a 30-below zero wind chill advisory, after nearly 30 years at the helm of the Portage County Parks system.
He leaves behind a mark that trails throughout the county, providing residents with a multitude of outdoor activities and those across the state and Midwest reasons to come visit and enjoy the area.
“Gary’s passion for the parks, trails and recreational areas throughout the county was inspiring,” said Sara Brish, executive director of the Stevens Point Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Gary had great vision and facilitated many land acquisitions and led several amazing projects in Portage County.
“His work was legendary and will forever make this a great place to live, work and play,” she said.
In his 27 years, Speckmann’s nearly doubled the acreage of county parks, participated in nine land acquisitions and three campground expansions, updated electric systems – the Dewey Range recently added lights to accommodate more people’s schedules – and paved roads and added flushing toilets to “modernize” the outdoor experience.
In more recent years, the snow-making machine has been added to allow for downhill skiing and tubing at Standing Rocks, a disc golf course has gone in and a dog park was created.
“A lot of the things we’ve done, I haven’t even participated in,” he said.
The dog park, however, grew out of a personal idea he had, Speckmann said.
“I was on a mower one day and thought, ‘this would be a good place for my dog to run,’ so I mowed a trail and never knew it would grow to what it is,” he said.
“Twenty years ago if you’d have told me we’d have to build an area for people to throw a Frisbee, I’d have told you you were crazy,” Speckmann said. “Or the dog park. People are going to pay us to let their dog run around? There’s always new things; people’s needs change.”
Speckmann took the helm in 1992, following a position as parks director in Iowa. A University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate, he wanted to come back to the area, and this position fit perfectly.
The county began advertising for Speckmann’s post last week, after he updated the job duties and description so those coming in would know it is not a desk job. In fact, it is rare to find Speckmann at his desk. Typically, he is out working in the field with other parks personnel, regardless of the weather.
It’s helped him keep in touch with the needs and desires of the community, which in turn has assisted in his ability to grow the parks to around 2,600 acres, about 1,000 of which he was involved in securing.
“Those are always fun,” he said of land acquisitions. “You’re protecting an area, and it’ll be protected forever, so that’s neat.”
The newest county park, the 270-acre Steinhaugen Recreation Area in Custer, which opened in 2016, added another first to the parks system: a fat-tire bike trail. A presentation on the newest park will take place Saturday, Jan. 20, as part of a fundraising event for the park and the Central Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra. Speckmann will be among the presenters at the event, which begins at 3 p.m. and has a suggested donation of $20 per group.
While aspects of the job – not the least of which is budgeting and grants to provide and continue the various opportunities provided by the parks system – have changed over the years, Speckmann said his philosophy has been to be creative. As people have made requests, he instructed staff to never respond there isn’t enough money, manpower or time.
“We’ve always said we’re not going to use that as an excuse,” he said. “We’re going to find a way to do it.”
There are 14 county parks, a shooting range, three recreation areas, three separate trails (the Tomorrow River and Green Circle State Trails and the Plover Ski Trail), a cemetery, a beach, a dog exercise area, the shooting range, a couple of boat landings and a few waysides as part of the parks system. Not to mention the plethora of activities and offerings within those pieces: skiing, hiking, biking, swimming, camping, disc golf, fat tire trail, picnic areas, boating, fishing, public hunting, snowmobiling, volleyball courts, horse shoes, woodlands and wetlands.
There’s been a gamut of accomplishments, so it is difficult to choose a favorite, Speckmann said. But likely one of the top ones is his work with the Green Circle Trail. His involvement with that board began the year he came to the area, and has continued with trail development, maintenance and tree cutting.
“It’s probably the most important thing we do in the community because so many people use it,” he said.
Speckmann has been involved with the Green Circle Committee nearly from its origin, and has been a key player in its success, said John Jury, a former chair of the committee and current member. In his role as parks director, Speckmann has been the keeper of legal records and he and his staff have coordinated the majority of maintenance efforts over the years.
“His knowledge of ‘how to get things done’ and local relationships has been very important to the Green Circle’s development and improvements,” Jury said. “I suspect he knows every tree on the trail.
“If he thinks retirement means he is done with the Green Circle, however, he is wrong,” he quipped.
Speckmann, who is married to Kathy and has three children, joked that he will be doing “nothing” now.
“I have 40 years of unwinding to do,” he said.