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Henry County Conservation director retires after 31 years with county

Henry County Conservation Director John Pullis is retiring after nearly 32 years with the department. (Ashley Duong/The Union)
Henry County Conservation Director John Pullis is retiring after nearly 32 years with the department. (Ashley Duong/The Union)

MT. PLEASANT — Every time John Pullis, director of the Henry County Conservation Department, thought he’d heard and seen it all, something new and unexpected popped up.

“I think each year, if I could write a book, it would be a tome. And each year could be a chapter in it. It seems like every year there’s something unusual,” he said of his time with the department.

Some notable incidents in his tenure at the department include camper explosions and RVs and trailers ending up in rivers.

“You think you see it all and then something else happens,” he said.

After nearly 32 years with the department, the director is now heading off to a new adventure. Although he will remember the crazier incidents, the director’s time with the department was exciting in different ways as well.

The director started as a park ranger and part-time naturalist with the department in 1989, fresh out of Iowa State University.

“I started as a pre-veterinary major,” he said, but he found after his first semester that he was more interested in the school’s fisheries and wildlife biology major. After graduating in December 1988, Pullis began applying for positions at conservation departments across the Midwest.

“I started here in January and have been here ever since,” he said.

Pullis took over the director position in 2003 and got to work improving the county’s parks and facilities. One of his biggest pushes was to improve environmental education.

“When I took over, this department was pretty stagnant. We hadn’t been doing a lot of new and fun things,” he said.

Under Pullis, the department would transform their nature center into an interactive and engaging space as well as hire full-time naturalists to facilitate activities. The department originally started out with one part-time position which has now grown to two full-time naturalists.

“It was one of the things I negotiated with the board when I interviewed. Within a year, [the naturalist] was so busy I had to go back to the board and say, ‘We need to move her to full-time.’” he said.

Outside of improving the department’s educational offerings, Pullis made an effort to update the facilities available to residents. This included building four cabins on campgrounds run by the department.

“We went to a conference and learned that cabins were going to become a big thing. We built two smaller ones that were fairly successful and built two more now. I think cabins will still be one way people will enjoy recreation besides owning their own campers and stuff,” he said.

As Pullis moves on from the department, he’ll miss the opportunity to work with not only employees but also the volunteers that have lent their time to conservation.

“We used a lot of volunteer help on the nature center and cabins and stuff like that,” he said.

Watching people from all walks of life converge to help improve the department will remain one of Pullis’ favorite memories from working with conservation.

“Just sit and talk to those people about what they did for a living and just those conversations with those people as far as what they did and what they learned in life was of interest to me,” he said.

As he exits the position on Oct. 2, Pullis hopes people will continue to enjoy the parks and the facilities available to them in Henry County.

“I just hope they like the improvements we’ve made over 30 some years and diversity of opportunities for different recreational activities,” he said.