Schoepp leaves behind lasting legacy
Pierce County Parks Superintendent Scott Schoepp has spent every summer since 1979 working in parks. A summer vacation is not something he has been used to, but that will change in 2023 as he will retire Friday, Feb. 3.
“How do you know when it’s time to retire?” Schoepp mused. “When some of the kids you used to see running around in the park and now they have kids running round the park. When some of your previous employees’ kids have worked for you as well, that’s a pretty good sign too.”
Schoepp took the Parks Superintendent position in Pierce County in January 1986. When he first started, he was in charge of managing Nugget Lake County Park and the Pierce County snowmobile trail system. That list steadily grew as the county acquired more park properties: The Lee-Kay Forest, the Martell County Forest, the Trimbelle Recreation Area, the Trenton Island boat landing, the Pierce County Shooting Range, more snowmobile trails and the recently acquired Ellsworth demo forest (next to the old poor farm on Crosstown Road).
Each day was a new adventure for Schoepp. He performed every duty from cleaning park toilets to preparing the department budget. Everything he could do himself or in-house he did, in order to save the county money.
“Every day is different,” Schoepp said. “In the off-season days are a little more predictable. But when you’re battling Mother Nature, it’s a constant battle of what she’s delivering, whether it be snow, rain, or flood or tornadoes.”
Schoepp grew up in eastern South Dakota, where he took a job in wildlife fisheries as a way to gain experience. He enjoyed it so much that he thought he should take it on as a career. He earned a degree in parks management from South Dakota State University in Brookings. While he was in college, he worked two summers for the South Dakota state parks system, then two summers with the North Dakota state parks system. After serving as a winter ranger in North Dakota, he landed his first full-time job managing Stokes Thomas Lake City Park on Lake Kampeska in Watertown, ND. He lived right in the city-owned campground and in the winter, worked for the city’s forestry department. He did that for a couple of years.
“When you live in a park, you never get away from it,” Schoepp said.
He joked that love brought him here when his wife Melanie, who is also from South Dakota, got a job in Pierce County. He worked as a farm laborer for Brown Seed Company before getting hired as the Parks Superintendent. He laughed when recalling people complaining about windy days in Wisconsin.
“The funniest thing was, when I first moved over here, people would say how windy it was,” Schoepp recalled. “I was used to walking hunched over backwards just to stay upright. The wind (in the Dakotas), it’s relentless. Here it would calm down at night, there it just howled all night long.”
Schoepp said adding the comfort station was the turning point for making Nugget Lake a popular camping destination. Once the flush toilets and showers were added, occupancy increased dramatically. They soon made the decision to add more electrical sites, which prompted the need to add even more.
“When we did that, we found we needed even more electrical sites,” Schoepp said. “At some point in time, we put electricity to all of our sites.”
Nugget Lake County Park, located at N4351 County Road HH, Plum City, is 752 acres of semi-wilderness with a 116-acre lake, 55-unit campground, five camping cabins with heat and air conditioning, modern comfort stations, two playgrounds, weekend nature movies at the outdoor amphitheater, weekend naturalist programs, several miles of hiking and cross country skiing trails, a boat ramp and dock, fishing pier, unique geological formations, a winter sledding hill and more.
During Schoepp’s tenure, more sites were added, along with five camping cabins, the outdoor amphitheater, a second playground in the campground and a large rental fleet of almost 40 kayaks, boats and canoes.
“We put one cabin in for seasonal housing and saw the demand was unbelievable,” Schoepp said.
He credits his two full-time employees, Travis Campbell and Jake Gilles, for their hard work in making the park a destination.
“They are both excellent employees and they deserve a lot of the credit for where our parks department is today,” Schoepp said.
Schoepp is also proud of the Trenton Island boat landing project, located 1.4 miles southwest of the Highway 35 and 63 intersection in Hager City. The county acquired the land formerly known as Gene’s Tackle during the FEMA buyout program, and in 2015 using various grant programs turned it into a two-stall boat landing with a lighted parking lot.
“It sat there in limbo for many years,” Schoepp said.
Then Parks Committee Chair Ken Snow wanted to turn the site into a boat landing and grants were obtained to refurbish the small one-boat landing.
Another accomplishment Schoepp had a hand in is the growth of the Pierce County snowmobile trail system. Working with the Pierce County Snowmobile Council and Parks Committee, trails have been increased by more than 20 miles during Schoepp’s tenure to total 237 miles of funded trails.
“We’ve put in almost nine brand new bridges over the course of my tenure,” Schoepp said. “One is going in today (Jan. 11) on Mines Creek west of Spring Valley.”
The department also removed two old bridges on the Rush River and in Esdaile and rehabilitated many other bridges throughout the county.
Schoepp said most of Pierce County’s parks were basically wooded property when acquired. His department has been tasked with putting trails and bridges in and adding amenities to make the parks user-friendly for visitors. He’s understandably protective of the hard work put in, which is why the tornado of 2016 hit him especially hard.
“What really kicked me was the tornado in 2016. It was devastating in my eyes,” Schoepp said. “The park becomes a part of you. To see it just wiped away. A lot of the trees I’ve planted, they were just gone. That is one thing I’m not going to miss is worrying about storms. It’s destruction and massive amounts of work.”
Schoepp said it seems like half-inch to 1-inch rains are a thing of the past. Rain events are becoming more destructive, dumping several inches of rain in short periods of time.
“And that’s why we have some sediment problems (in Nugget Lake),” he said.
Schoepp is thankful for his wife, Melanie, and three children who put up with him working every single weekend for 37 years. He knows it was a big sacrifice for them.
Pierce County Board Supervisor Mel Pittman, who is a Parks Committee member, described Schoepp as unselfish in his care for the county’s parks and rec areas.
“He has been a dedicated employee working many weekends through the camping season, partially because of few employees assisting him to maintain our county properties,” Pittman said. “Thank you, Scott, for your dedicated service to Pierce County and the people you have interacted with. Congratulations on your retirement and enjoy your new lifestyle.”
Pierce County Board Supervisor Rodney Gilles, also a Parks Committee member, echoed Pittman’s sentiments.
“He has done a great job and for a long time, has been very responsible, dedicated and treats his job like a first-generation owner would treat his own business, trying to make it the best it could be,” Gilles said.
Schoepp said he loved the wide variety of people he met and the friendships and relationships he established with staff and visitors. He’s also grateful to the county for being supportive of the parks’ development.
“I’m thankful for that,” he said. “It’s good for the citizens of the county to have recreational opportunities and park properties. It’s important that people support the (Nugget Lake) dredging project, and it’s going to be expensive, but it’s the only inland lake in the county.”
Schoepp carefully unfolded a piece of paper to make sure he didn’t forget people to thank. His list included the first Parks Committee Chair Ray Anderson, the Parks Committees over the years, the County Board; Mary Heisler, who donated the Lee-Kay and Martell County forests; Bob Klein, who had the foresight to create the Plum Creek Watershed, which created the dam and park; and the staff and seasonal staff he’s worked with throughout the years.
“It’s important to honor my staff, who did a lot of the work,” Schoepp said. “I kind of believed in a philosophy. I didn’t assign a task that I wasn’t willing, able or capable of doing myself. That’s how I felt that I had good people.”
Schoepp promised that he will be “really, really good at retiring.” He plans to tinker in the wood, work on projects and of course, volunteer at the park.
“It’s time I start visiting parks instead of working in them,” he smiled.