Conservationists are bashing a plan to cut off state funding to buy public lands, at the state and local level. Critics are calling the bill “potentially disastrous” and a “direct attack on conservation”, and say the plan could undermine wildlife habitat, economic development and water quality.
Under House File 542, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and county conservation boards would not be able to use state funds to acquire public lands for uses such as parks, trails, preserves, museums and playgrounds. The bill would also repeal conservation tax credits, and prohibit governments from purchasing conservation land for source water pollution control projects.
Conservation groups have been quick to lambaste the plan. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation’s Joe Jayjack calls the bill unprecedented.
“I think the entire bill is just egregious,” Jayjack said. “I’ve never seen an attack on conservation legislatively in this form in my lifetime.”
Under the bill, local and state governments would be able to use state funds to preserve and maintain existing public lands, but not buy new acres.
Rep. David Sieck, R-Glenwood, is sponsoring the bill, which he says is intended to “pretty much stop the state from buying public land at this time."
“It would prioritize the state dollars to maintain, improve and develop and enhance state lands, instead of acquiring more land and more land,” Sieck said. “We need to prioritize what we’re doing as a state.”
He concedes the approach is broad and controversial.
“I know this bill is a huge, huge bill,” he said. “I’ll tell you, I’ve been on the phone all morning.”
Sieck argues government agencies are taking on land too quickly and aren’t adequately maintaining the properties. Critics dispute those arguments. According to the DNR, about one percent of Iowa’s total acres are publicly held, among the lowest rates in the country.
Cindy Lane is the water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council.
“We have very little public land in the first place,” Lane said. “Point being, I don’t think that the rapid expansion of public lands is high on the list of concerns here in a state who is so strapped already in the amount of public space that we have.”
Critics point out that state lawmakers have cut the DNR’s budget in half over the past decade. According to an analysis by the department’s Natural Resource Commission, the DNR’s general fund appropriations climbed to $21.9 million in FY 2009, and has declined to $11.2 million in FY 2018.
Sieck also argues government agencies are buying land that could be farmed otherwise, citing complaints from agriculture advocates who say the state is “competing” against them to buy land.
“There’s a lot of concern that you’re competing against sometimes beginning farmers, sometimes farmers, sometimes other interests,” Sieck said. “So this kind of levels the playing field.”
But conservationists and state officials dispute that. According to the DNR, the state’s public lands have an average Corn Suitability Rating of 32, (according to Iowa State University the state’s average is 68). Thirty-seven percent of public lands are classified as highly erodible soils, 40 percent are forested, and 14 percent are water.
Jayjack argues the state should have more acres under public control, not fewer.
“A lot of the land that we’re buying is floodplain, river bottom, which is being flooded more and more often,” Jayjack said. “We work with a lot of landowners who want to sell. Their land is being flooded three out of five years, and they’re looking for a way out.”
Conservation lands can also play an important role in improving the state’s water quality. Returning erodible lands on a river’s edge back to the floodplain and re-establishing wetlands and prairies can keep nutrients and soil on the land and out of waterways. Alicia Vasto is a water policy specialist with the Iowa Environmental Council.
“Local communities that see chronic problems with their drinking water, that are looking for option for ways to protect their source water, purchasing land from a willing landowner might be one of those options. And it might be the best way to protect their drinking water source,” Vasto said. “So completely removing that as an option for them really restricts their ability to protect their drinking water for their citizens.”
Sieck also argues that conservation lands can qualify for tax exemptions, potentially taking valuable property off local tax rolls. But public lands do still generate tax revenues. In Fiscal Year 2019, the DNR paid more than $1 million in property taxes on 88,437 acres of publicly-held land.
Beyond tax revenues, advocates argue public lands in the form of state and local parks, trails and wildlife preserves are economic drivers, especially in small, rural communities that may see few visitors otherwise.
“Public land and parks and trails and these quality of life initiatives that places in Iowa are screaming out for,” Jayjack said. “I think that it can really help redevelop a lot of these rural communities that are asking for things like this.”
Conservationists say the bill flies in the face of a constitutional amendment Iowa voters approved overwhelmingly in 2010, directing state lawmakers to increase state sales taxes to fund land acquisitions, conservation efforts and water quality projects. Legislators have failed to fund the Iowa Water & Land Legacy trust fund since voters approved it.
Sieck says there are underlying conflicts that need to be addressed before lawmakers would implement the constitutional amendment, issues he says his bill could bring up.
“I think this opens up the conversation to a bigger narrative of whether we should be acquiring ground,” Sieck said. “If we are for what purpose?”
Subcommittee meetings on House File 542 and a scaled back Senate version, SSB 1221, are scheduled for Monday.