Statehouse Silliness

I don’t know what kind of radiation is emitted from the gold plating at the state capitol in Des Moines, but it appears to make otherwise reasonable people come up with some pretty silly ideas. 

Every year throughout February, my inbox lights up with notices about the craziness at the state house. Often, the emails come with urgent calls to action to speak out against some bill that’s being debated in a committee in one chamber or the other. 

For the last few years, the ones that have gotten the most attention have been bills that limit, or in some cases outright prohibit, acquisition of land by conservation agencies, usually the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The notable one this year is a bill that would prohibit the agency from acquiring land at an auction, or receiving land from a nonprofit organization that bought the land at an auction. 

The same bill showed up in both the Senate and House this year. As has become the norm, public land advocates from all over the state descended on the capitol to attend the committee meetings and speak out against the legislation. The bill failed to pass out of committee on the House side, but the Senate advanced it, keeping the bill viable past the first “funnel” deadline last week. 

Why a state that ranks 47th nationally in terms of available public land sees fit to move forward this type of legislation baffles those of us that work in parks and conservation. And, judging by the turnout at some of these committee meetings, the bafflement extends well beyond the outdoor professionals. Anyone who has ever hiked or walked their dog on a public trail, and anyone who has hunted, fished, camped, or birdwatched on public land knows the value of these lands. And with only about three percent of the state in public land, it’s not like we’re flush with such places. 

It's ironic that the same people that are advancing public land restrictions also lament the fact that our young, intelligent future workforce keeps leaving the state for places like Colorado, or any of the 46 other states with more public land. Not that public land availability is the only factor in one’s decision to relocate, research shows that access to outdoor recreation ranks fairly high up there, especially among the younger generation. 

In these debates I hear the argument that there’s only so much land and we can’t have public entities competing against hardworking farmers for it. They claim the DNR buys up so much land that it’s making it hard for new farmers to get a start. Yet rarely do I see data to back this up. 

The data that I have seen tells a different story. The average suitability rating on public lands is so low that farming it would be a losing endeavor financially. Much of it is prone to flooding. Sure, some of it could be farmed. Maybe even was farmed prior to it becoming public land. And some of it still is farmed via tenant agreements which, incidentally, is a great way for beginning farmers to get their foot in the door. 

As for buying land at auction, no public agency is going out there and bidding on prime farmland. Certainly not the DNR, which isn’t exactly what you’d call well-funded. In the rare instance that a conservation organization, DNR or otherwise, does vie for a piece of land at an auction, it’s almost certainly on account of some significant ecological, geologic, or strategic purpose. Things like threatened and endangered species, globally significant landforms, impaired water bodies, or protecting existing parks from development and encroachment. 

The public has made very clear that such things are important, and they’ve stated as much with their votes. In 2010, almost 63 percent of Iowans voted to amend the state’s constitution and establish the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. This fund is to be used exclusively for parks and trails, natural resources, and water quality improvements. More Iowans voted for this amendment than for any state office candidate. Research and polling since then indicates that public support for such things remains as high or higher today. 

Unfortunately, the fund sits empty now 13 years later. Funding the trust requires increasing the state sales tax, the first 3/8 of a penny of which must go to the trust, as per the will of the voters. Turns out, voters cannot make this change. Only the legislature can. 

While Iowans sit and wait for our lawmakers to do what we asked them to, the people under the golden dome instead debate bills all but banning public land acquisition. 

I don’t know if it’s the gold or marble or what, but the silliness in the state house is astounding sometimes. 

This piece is from my regular newspaper column that runs monthly in three local papers.