Starting Monday there's a new director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. After serving as Gov. Kim Reynolds legislative liaison, Kayla Lyon will become the agency's first female leader, after the department has gone over a year without a permanent leader in place.
As of Monday, the governor's former lobbyist, Kayla Lyon, is taking over for interim DNR Director Bruce Trautman. Before leading the agency that oversees state parks, public recreation and drinking water, Lyon worked as a lobbyist for farmers and agribusiness groups, including the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives.
Trautman will remain in the agency as deputy director, a role he held under previous director Chuck Gipp, who retired in May of 2018.
Some inside and outside her new department see Lyon's appointment as an opportunity for new leadership, and note the importance of diversifying the state's leading executives.
"We think that having more diverse voices at the table around environmental protection and natural resources is imperative to solving the problems that our state faces," said Ingrid Gronstal Anderson, Water Program Director at the Iowa Environmental Council.
"As my legislative liaison and lead policy advisor on agriculture and natural resources, Kayla oversaw DNR operations including regulatory permitting, conservation efforts, and wildlife issues," Reynolds said in a written statement. "She also played an instrumental role in the 2018 comprehensive water quality funding bill. As DNR Director, Kayla will serve a key role in helping our state continue to grow."
But Lyon's appointment and her background is raising some questions about how she will approach her new responsibilities.
"In the role at Iowa DNR, it's important to balance the interests of all Iowans and our natural resources, so you have public health and you have recreation and you have agriculture," Gronstal Anderson said. "Obviously we want to see those interests appropriately balanced. So if it looks like she is going to weight agricultural interests more heavily than those other interests then that's definitely something that would concern us."
Lyon for her part has said she'll work to preserve the state's natural places.
"I am honored to lead the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and appreciate the governor for providing me a new opportunity to serve Iowans," Lyon said in a written statement. "In this role, I will continue the DNR's mission to protect our natural resources, state parks, landscapes, and improve the quality of life in Iowa for generations to come."
State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, has questions about Lyon's qualifications as well. He's the ranking member on the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
"I don't want to say that she can't do it," Hogg said. "It's not a traditional background for a DNR director. Typically you would be looking for somebody who has extensive experience in natural resource management."
He says Lyon's lack of experience in the field raises some concerns. Lyon will face a Senate confirmation process next session. Reynolds had delayed making a permanent appointment during the most recent Legislative session.
"Regardless of her background I think it's an open question whether the Reynolds administration will take the action we need to take to clean up our water and manage water better to prevent future flood damage," Hogg said. "But this is where I think the new director is in a position now to step up."
Some employees at the department say going over a year without permanent leadership has taken a toll on workplace morale. One DNR employee, who asked not to be named due to concerns over retribution, said there was "a lot of apprehension" over whether Trautman would be appointed permanently.
"There's a lot of stuff you can kind of get past if you have a future, and now with the change in the director I feel like we have a future again," the employee said.
Lyon will oversee some 1,400 employees at the agency, which has seen steep state budget cuts in the wake of the Great Recession. State funding is at $13.9 million this year, down from $21.8 million in 2009. The agency's total operations budget amounts to $134 million.
Meanwhile, Gronstal Anderson says many in the field still have basic questions about Lyon's biographical history and education, her qualifications, and what her priorities will be at the department.
"The space of environmental work and environmental protection in the state is pretty small," Gronstal Anderson said. "So to have a new director that not many individuals working in the space know of, that's a little surprising."