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Rocca learned the ropes as an intern at Lake Macbride

Nick Rocca is the new Park Ranger at Lake Macbride State Park near Solon. Rocca, an Iowa City native, returns to the Solon area after having positions in other state parks, and deems Lake Macbride as “one of Iowa’s best.” (photo by Lori Lindner)

SOLON– There’s a new ranger in town.
Lake Macbride State Park near Solon recently welcomed Park Ranger Nick Rocca. Rocca replaced Ranger Gwen Prentice, who transferred her position to Wildcat Den State Park, near Muscatine, late in the summer.
An Iowa City native, Rocca graduated from City High and attended Kirkwood Community College’s Parks and Natural Resources program and Upper Iowa University to learn park and wildlife management. Internships, seasonal work and an Americorps position at Lake Macbride, under the tutelage of Prentice and Park Manager Ron Puettmann, taught Rocca much of what he needed to know about working in state parks.
“Ron and Gwen hired me as a seasonal worker to start my internship,” said Rocca. “I learned a lot of what I know today from them. They are both extremely hard workers with great work values, and Ron has always been a role model of mine. Now I get to work with him, and I’m pretty happy about that.”
For Puettmann, the respect is mutual.
“Nick was one of the hardest working aides we ever had, and always came with a positive attitude. We knew early on that he would eventually join the full time Iowa State Parks family. I am truly excited to have the opportunity to work with him again,” Puettmann said.
Rocca’s education and experience at Lake Macbride opened the door to his chosen career, and Rocca was hired by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as a Natural Resources Technician at Oak Rocks State Park in Knoxville. From there, he transferred to Palisades State Park for five years, and then went on to Lake Manawa State Park in Council Bluffs as a park ranger. He graduated from the Iowa Law Enforcement academy in 2013.
Though Rocca has been all around the state to experience its public parks, home is where his heart is.
“I jumped at the opportunity to come back to Lake Macbride,” said Rocca, now 31. “It’s hands-down one of the best of Iowa’s state parks. It’s my favorite, by far.”
Childhood memories of coming to the park with his family to fish, camp and swim– and being in close proximity to them once again­– also drew Rocca back to the area. He now lives with his wife and three young children in the park ranger’s home near Lake Macbride’s entrance.
A park ranger is trained to care for the park in a variety of ways, including forest and prairie plant management, facilities repair, equipment maintenance, fire safety and fish and wildlife management, but a ranger’s primary responsibility is law enforcement. Rangers conduct radar monitoring for speed infractions, supervise the park’s beaches, respond to concerns at the camping areas and work to keep park users safe.
Enforcing the rules at Lake Macbride State Park– even with its recent spate of alcohol-related skirmishes at the public beach that caused the DNR to institute an early closing time– is a far cry from Rocca’s experience at Lake Manawa.
Manawa is one of two Iowa State Parks within city limits, and burgeoning populations in Council Bluffs and Omaha have brought a higher level of criminal activity that often overflowed into the park.
“Each park has its own different user bases,” said Rocca. “Lake Manawa was intensive law enforcement.”
Rocca said the public has the perception park rangers aren’t the same kind of law enforcement officers as police or sheriff personnel.
“We do the same things police departments can do. In fact, sometimes we work with police departments in their training, so if we respond to assist, or they come to assist us, we are consistent in our response.”
Rocca became a certified defensive tactics instructor for the DNR and is a certified OWI instructor, allowing him to teach other rangers how to assess and handle interactions that could become combative. The DNR also trains its own instructors for dealing with firearms and for driving while in pursuit.
“There have been situations when we’ve gone to cite a person, or ask for their drivers license, and people say, ‘you’re just a rent-a-cop, you can’t do anything,” he said. “We’ve also had people who try to outrun us, thinking if they got outside the park grounds, we couldn’t do anything. That’s not the case. We are certified officers, sworn to uphold any law under the Code of Iowa.”
In addition to law enforcement, park rangers assist with maintaining the park and its facilities all year long, and must be knowledgeable in how to support the park’s natural resources as well as possess skills in areas like construction and equipment repair.
“You become a jack-of-all-trades,” said Rocca. “You take a sense of pride in what you do, trying to make it a safe, clean place for people to come for recreation.”
With year-round activities like hiking on its trails and camping at the renovated campground, and seasonal activities such as the free public beach, boat rentals and fishing in summer, and snowmobiling, cross country skiing and ice fishing in the winter. Rocca hopes everyone will enjoy all the park has to offer.
“Macbride is a great place to recreate and bring your family. The campground was just renovated a few years ago, updated with 50 amp electricity with full hookups. We will get the beach turned around, and the lake is a great place for fishing and boating and getting away for the weekend.”
Personally, Rocca said, he is happy to be home.
“I look forward to getting to know people in Solon and the surrounding area for many years,” he said.