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Know Your Madisonian: Former Dane County Parks director encourages all to get outdoors

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When Darren Marsh joined the Dane County Parks Department nearly three decades ago, the county managed roughly 4,200 acres of parks, wildlife areas and trails.

As of Marsh’s retirement on Thursday, the county’s overall land management system had grown to 14,600 acres — almost 18,000 if you add in easements for accessibility to trails or trout streams, for example — through donations and other protected land acquisitions.

Marsh, who had served as the county parks department’s director since 2003, may very well have a story for every single acre, which is probably why it’s difficult for him to pick a favorite park, stream or trail.

“They’re all fantastic,” Marsh, 57, said, sitting at a picnic table overlooking Lake Waubesa from Lake Farm Park.

“We have so many great places to go to in Dane County. I just want to make sure that people understand that they have them out there and get people out there. Go out and see these parks — go out there and paddle our waters, go out and fish a trout stream, go out there and take a picnic in a park — and choose a different park each time you go out.”

In late June, the Dane County Board unanimously passed a resolution to rename a county-owned facility on Robertson Road the Darren Marsh Parks & Lake Management Facility.

The Foundation for Dane County Parks will hold a public event to celebrate Marsh from 4 to 7 p.m. Sept. 9 at Lake Farm Park’s Shelter 2.

How did you end up with the Dane County Parks Department?

Born in Sturgeon Bay, Marsh grew up in Madison after his father, who was a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources forester, relocated here. In between classes at Memorial High School and later UW-Madison, where he earned a degree in forestry and park recreation, Marsh could be found doing the things he still loves today, including camping, fishing, hiking or simply spending time outside.

“I got a lot of my inspiration from him,” Marsh said of his dad. “From that point on I was working in natural resources my whole life. Anything I was doing was outdoors, whether working landscaping, helping manage our family property or working in parks and things like that.”

Before joining the Dane County Parks Department in 1993, Marsh spent time as a park ranger at Door County’s Whitefish Dunes State Park, with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in New Mexico and as an assistant administrator with the Jackson County Forestry and Parks Department.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended nearly every aspect of most people’s lives, but one area that has thrived has been outdoor recreation. How did the coronavirus impact Dane County’s parks?

“The outdoors provided that safety cushion. The outdoors has always been there for that and there’s so many known health benefits for being outside that it became the destination where people would go. People found out about all of these places. There isn’t a place in Dane County now that you can go to that people probably do not know about. It’s been just truly amazing. We estimated that our visitation went up another million during the pandemic, from 3 million to 4 million.”

Any plans after retirement?

Marsh said he plans to eventually move back to the family farm in Door County, but that may not be for another year or so. Until then, Marsh plans on spending time with his wife, Dawn, children Bryce and Casey, and their dog, Nikki.

“We’re going to get outdoors, we’re going to bike and hike, we’re going to fish, all the things we love to do. But with my work schedule, it’s been a little tough to fit in. After I have that break for a little bit I’m going to try to get back involved to support what I have a passion for — our public spaces.”

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

“The one thing I want to really get across is the work of our amazing staff and our volunteers. Park staff and our passionate volunteers work so hard to provide great parks and top-notch services. They do the most important work. Support from community leaders has been unwavering and I’m very thankful for the opportunities that I was given to carry out their initiatives. It’s been truly unbelievable experience.

“I can guarantee you can’t find another community in the United States that has the initiatives that we have here in Dane County, protecting our natural resources and looking toward the future. Being part of that, working with a tremendous team, has been very inspirational and it’s just been an amazing career.”

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