© 2024 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Iowa conservation groups say bill would limit growth of public land

a hiking trail in the loess hills
Katarina Sostaric
Conservation groups are concerned a bill in the Iowa Legislature would prevent the expansion of public land.

Conservation groups are concerned a bill that advanced in the Iowa Legislature last week would prevent the expansion of public lands in the state for outdoor recreation and wildlife.

The bill—which passed in the Senate and was then approved by Republicans on a House subcommittee—would require the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to make maintenance of existing public lands a higher priority than buying new land.

The House subcommittee hearing drew a crowd of people in opposition to the bill, representing hunters, anglers, trappers, and conservation and environmental groups.

Buchanan County Conservation Board Director Dan Cohen was one of them.

“In rural Iowa, we don’t have minor league baseball stadiums, we don’t have huge museums. We have waters, we have woods, we have lands that bring people in,” he said. “And knocking out the ability for us to attract and have people come and use our areas, maybe by reducing the amount that we can acquire and have for those purposes, would be detrimental to rural Iowa.”

Rep. Dean Fisher, R-Montour, said constituents have complained to him about the condition of Iowa’s parks and trails. He said he supports the bill, and he doesn’t see it as limiting growth in public lands.

“It prioritizes the common sense practice of maintaining what we’ve got first, and keeping it in good order before we build more, and then letting it go to crap,” Fisher said.

But Cohen said all properties always need to be maintained.

“To say that, because you’ve got places that you need to still maintain and manage, any acquisition is therefore going to be way low prioritized, is kind of a red herring for, ‘We don’t want any more public land,’” Cohen said.

Fred Long, president of the Iowa Conservation Alliance, asked who is going to determine if land is being maintained.

“So who’s going to make this decision?” he asked. “The wildlife biologists that know how to manage it for wildlife, or the farming organizations that think that if it isn’t corn, soybeans, or bare dirt, it isn’t managed?”

The Iowa Farm Bureau is one of two organizations that registered in support of the bill.

“Our members have set policy that the state of Iowa should concentrate more on the management of currently owned land and reduce the effort to acquire more public land,” said Kevin Kuhle, a lobbyist for the Iowa Farm Bureau.

He said the cheaper land being sold for conservation purposes could instead be sold to beginning farmers. Kuhle said landowners should open up their lands for public hunting without selling it for conservation, and the bill would require the DNR to explore such opportunities before buying more land.

Iowa ranks nearly last in the country for percentage of land available for public use.

Pete Hildreth, administrator for the DNR’s Conservation and Recreation Division, said state employees are maintaining Iowa’s public lands.

“And when these land acquisition opportunities come…we are not going to acquire something we can’t manage,” he said.

Hildreth also said the DNR does not typically buy productive farmland—most of it is highly erodible ground, areas that flood, and forested areas.

Rep. Austin Baeth, D-Des Moines, opposed the bill. He highlighted the fact that Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed a status quo budget for the DNR in the next fiscal year as costs have risen.

“So what I’m hearing is we’ve got a funding problem to maintain the land we have,” he said. “We’re going to still have that problem, even if we stopped acquiring more land, because we aren’t funding it.”

Rep. Helena Hayes, R-New Sharon, initially declined to vote to move the bill forward last Thursday because she wanted more information. But she ultimately signed on to advance the bill to the House Environmental Protection Committee.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter