Survey Says...

Among the many things we do at the conservation department, one is to gather input from the public. We do this both formally and informally.

Informally, we talk with a lot of people. Our staff talk to our park visitors and program participants to find out what they like about our parks and programs and what could be better. I spend a lot of time out in the community, gathering feedback on what the broader community wants from its park systems. We also stay informed on industry trends and collaborate with colleagues across the state for a broader view of public sentiment regarding parks and conservation.

Formally, we conduct surveys. In 2018 we conducted a countywide survey to find out what Des Moines County residents knew about our park system and what they wanted from it in the future in terms of development, improvement, and programming. We worked with the regional planning commission to conduct the survey in such a way that we got a statistically significant sample of the county population at large. There’s a science to doing such surveys, and we tapped the experts to make sure we did it right.

The results of that survey, along with several others that were less statistically regimented, helped shape the development of the various strategic operational and development plans that we use today to prioritize park improvement and expansion projects as well as to guide environmental education programming changes.

We also use data gathered from surveys to support budget and policy requests. Unfortunately, public support doesn’t necessarily translate into political will. But that’s a rant for another time.

And I know that skeptics will argue that surveys can be manipulated to say whatever the surveyor wants them to, because I’ve heard that argument before. But I contend that when you ask the same basic questions in different ways, repeatedly, and through multiple survey mechanisms across varying segments of the population, you can dilute that bias and be more confident in the results.

So, what do we consistently hear from you regarding parks and conservation? In short, there’s a lot of support for such things. Here are some highlights from various surveys that back that up.

For county residents, favorite outdoor recreation activities are hiking and fishing, with bicycling a rather distant third. However, the bicycling thing may reflect a lack of opportunity. When asked what activities or facilities county residents want to see added to the county park system, bike trails were the second most requested amenity behind campgrounds and cabins.

When asked what activities county residents would like to try but haven’t yet, the top two were canoeing/kayaking and cabin camping.

County residents also stated in survey responses that when friends or family from out of town come to visit, they’re more likely to visit parks and outdoor facilities than they are to visit shopping areas, historic sites, downtowns, or bars. Only restaurants scored higher than parks/outdoor areas for places people will go with out-of-town visitors.

More than any other media outlet, most people found out about county parks and programs by word-of-mouth. So, tell your friends.

As for conservation priorities, county residents want sensitive lands protected and invasive species controlled in natural areas.

It also appears that we’re willing to pay for what we value. More than half of county residents surveyed indicated unequivocal support for additional tax dollars being allocated to conservation priorities with another third indicating they’d possibly support additional tax funding, depending on the project or how the funding was structured. This sentiment holds across multiple survey mechanisms both locally and statewide. Depending on the survey, usually between half and three quarters of respondents say they support tax funding for parks and conservation.

Repeated polling of Iowans regarding funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund – the constitutionally protected fund that would generate $200 million annually for parks and conservation across the state via a 3/8-cent sales tax increase – shows statewide support in the upper 70-percent range.

In the last election, voters in Polk County (where Des Moines is located) approved a $65 million bond referendum to fund county park and conservation efforts there. The bond passed with more than 80 percent of voters in favor of taxing themselves for more and better parks and trails, cleaner waters, and protected natural areas. In the general election prior to that, more than 70 percent of voters in Linn County (home to Cedar Rapids) passed a similar bond. Voters in Johnson County (Iowa City) passed theirs in 2008. And voters in the state’s smallest county by population – Adams County – passed a bond largely to support the area’s most popular outdoor recreation attraction and economic engine – Lake Icaria.

Locally, three-quarters of more than 400 survey respondents – park visitors mostly – say they support additional government funding to improve the water quality at Big Hollow Lake. And a survey conducted through the University of Iowa Marketing Institute targeted at the local business community found that 74 percent of respondents are “more than likely” to support an increase in taxes to expand outdoor recreation efforts in the county.

Surveys can be good at assessing public opinion and levels of support. But opinions don’t build parks or protect lands or clean waters. That takes action. By us. By our elected leaders. So, I’ll end with one last survey question:

What will you do to support parks and conservation in your community?

This is from my monthly Living Land column published in The Hawk Eye newspaper.