Longtime Fixture of Iowa County Conservation System Retires

By Erica Place on December 20, 2022 in Blog

This month, Tom Hazelton retired from his now 47-year career shaping the state’s conservation professionals, natural resource legislation and county parks. His departure will leave a noticeable void. 

“I would argue that the name “Tom Hazelton” is synonymous with Iowa’s County Conservation System of today the way Ding Darling is synonymous with environmental cartoons and Aldo Leopold is synonymous with the concept of a Land Ethic,” said Chris Lee, Des Moines County Conservation Executive Director.

Hazelton found leadership roles early on, serving on committees at local and statewide levels during his nearly 35-year stint as a Linn County Conservation Park Ranger and Special Programs Manager. He created the County Conservation Peace Officers Association, a professional development program for park rangers and the resources they protect. After spearheading a strategic planning effort that set the direction for Iowa’s County Conservation System (ICCS), he stepped into the role of CEO following in the footsteps of Don Brazelton whose many years of dedication led to the passage of REAP and the Trust Fund.

Tom Hazelton speaking“I consider myself very fortunate to have come along at a time when most of the original pioneers and leaders of the young county conservation board system were still in place, providing this young lad the privilege to actually engage with and learn from an awesome array of mentors,” Hazelton reflected. “It has been a true honor to build upon the incredible work ethic and accomplishments from those who have gone before — cementing our resolve that we don’t have to do this by ourselves.”

Working behind the scenes to coordinate the state’s 99 county conservation boards as one strong organization, it’s clear he places strong importance on people and relationships. Hazelton has facilitated connections between Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and local county conservation boards, which INHF works with to create more parks, trails and wildlife areas.

Helping to shape and implement ideas like Travel Iowa’s 99 Parks campaign(s), mycountyparks.com and county park “selfie stations,” there are signs of Hazelton everywhere. Perhaps the greatest contributions are in his advocacy work. “He immediately recognized the [Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation] Trust Fund as the game-changer for outdoor recreation and natural environments in Iowa,” said Dan Cohen, Buchanan County Conservation Director.

Hazelton built support for the still-unfunded Trust Fund through a variety of initiatives. His creation of an Unmet Needs document, detailing what shovel-ready projects could be completed if the Trust Fund is funded, continues to be an important messaging piece in conversations with community leaders and legislators. He may have retired sooner, but decided to work for “one more year” multiple times because he wanted to see legislation passed to fund the Trust. Along with INHF President Joe McGovern, Hazelton has served as co-chair for the REAP Alliance, a group of organizations advocating for the state’s Resource Enhancement and Protection Program.

In reality, much of what makes the county conservation system what it is today is owed to Hazelton. “Tom has been one of the most impactful people I have known associated with county conservation,” said Roger Kean, Scott County Conservation Executive Director.

We congratulate Hazelton on this very well-deserved achievement. His steadfast leadership in conservation in Iowa and legacy of connecting people with the outdoors is sure to continue in the new capacity that retirement brings.

Adam Shirley, current Executive Director for Mitchell County Conservation, will take over as CEO for ICCS. Shirley was a land stewardship intern with INHF in the summer of 2009.

Tom Hazelton in his early days as a park ranger with Linn County Conservation.

Tom Hazelton as a park ranger in front of a corvette, 1982.