Riders converge on Gypsum City

Large swathes of land south of Fort Dodge that had been the site of gypsum mining for generations became an enticing place for people who like to ride off-highway vehicles after the miners left.

A group of local riders, aided by government officials and representatives of the gypsum companies, set out almost a decade ago to make the area into a safe and legal place to ride. The Gypsum City Off-Highway Vehicle Park, which opened in 2005, was the result of that partnership.

People from across Iowa as well as Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin will be at the park today and Saturday for a workshop conducted by the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council.

The park will attract riders from throughout the Midwest, according to Dan Kleen, of Pocahontas, who is the president of the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council.

“The riders are going to have an excellent experience here,” he said. “It’s absolutely gorgeous.”

“It’s the biggest project we’ve done in Iowa by far and the most successful project in terms of partnerships, getting everybody working together and looking at the big picture,” he added

The park, located near Webster County Road P59 and 219th Street, includes 15 miles of trails, a motocross track and an area for teaching children how to properly ride off-highway vehicles.

Workers from Trails Unlimited, a business enterprise that’s part of the United States Forest Service, are building an additional 34 miles of trails. Matt Cosgrove, the director of Webster County Conservation, said those trails will open to riders this summer.

A campground with water, sanitary sewer and electrical connections will open next year, he said. That campground will be managed by the Webster County Conservation Board.

Future plans call for opening another section of the park on the east side of Webster County Road P59.

The park is owned by the Webster County Improvement Corp., a private nonprofit organization, but it was designated a state park by the Iowa Natural Resources Commission.

About $4.5 million has been invested in the park, according to Dennis Plautz, the chief executive officer of the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance. All of that money came from state and federal grants.

The first section of the park was created on 500 acres donated by National Gypsum Co. Eventually, the park could encompass 1,500 acres and be the biggest of its kind in Iowa.

Larry Leiting, an off-highway vehicle enthusiast who was formerly the chairman of the board for the Fort Dodge Convention and Visitors Bureau, played a leading role in developing the park. He and two other off-highway vehicle riders, Matt Cooper and Rick Williams, formed a group called the Webster County Wheelers.

Establishing the park involved a partnership that involved the Webster County Wheelers, National Gypsum Co., United States Gypsum Co., the Fort Dodge and Webster County governments, legislators, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Iowa Department of Transportation.

“If all these people weren’t on the same page, it would not be here today,” Plautz said.

State Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, authored a liability reform law that addressed the concerns of the gypsum companies and aided the creation of the park. She introduced a proposal that relieved property owners of liability when they sell or donate land for use as an off-road park. Her proposal was attached to a municipal tort liability bill that was signed into law by former Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2003.

Kleen said Miller and state Sen. Daryl Beall, D-Fort Dodge, played key roles in restoring about $700,000 from off-highway vehicle registration fees after lawmakers diverted that money to be spent on other things. Kleen said some of that restored money was invested in the park.