A quiet Iowa House victory for public lands

The Iowa House State Government Committee did not take up a controversial public lands bill during its last meeting before the legislature’s second “funnel” deadline. Failure to act means the bill almost certainly will not move forward this year.

Senate File 516 would have required the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to “prepare a statewide, long-range plan that shall prioritize the maintenance and protection of significant open space property throughout the state.” The state Department of Transportation would have been directed to “prepare a long-range plan for the development, promotion, management, and acquisition of recreational trails throughout the state.”

The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation advocated for the bill, on the grounds that “the state of Iowa should concentrate on management of currently owned land and reduce the efforts to acquire more public land.” Conservationists pointed out that Iowa has less public land than the vast majority of states.

Presenting the bill in the Iowa Senate on March 14, Republican State Senator Annette Sweeney emphasized that the intention was not to restrict or prevent the state from funding new trails or purchasing land. “This is not a moratorium on our land acquisitions,” she told colleagues. “It is to make sure that we center our parks and our trails as such to make sure that they are maintained and protected.” She cited problems with invasive plants like multiflora rose and musk thistle.

However, when questioned by Democratic State Senator Nate Boulton, Sweeney acknowledged that if the DNR’s new five-year plan recommended that the state stop acquiring land for trails or parks, then that would be the outcome.

Aside from the Farm Bureau, only the Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association were registered in favor of the bill. More than a dozen entities opposed Senate File 516, including environmental and conservation groups, those representing hunting and fishing advocates, and the Iowa Association of Counties as well as the Iowa Association of County Conservation Boards.

The DNR registered as “undecided” on the bill, but the agency’s representatives told a House subcommittee “that the agency does not, by rule, compete against farmers for land purchases,” Erin Murphy reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “Neither does the agency purchase any land from an organization that bid against a farmer in acquiring that land, the state officials said.”

During the Senate debate, several Democrats warned the bill could produce unintended consequences. State Senator Sarah Trone Garriott noted that in the previous legislature, she received more than 800 emails opposing a bill that would have limited acquisition of new public lands. State Senator Pam Jochum pointed out that other bills Republicans have introduced this year could reduce state funding for trails and land purchases.

The Senate approved Senate File 514 by 33 votes to 14, mostly along party lines.

Democratic State Representative Austin Baeth was the bill’s most vocal opponent in the lower chamber and had urged Iowans to contact their state lawmakers about the proposal. Appearing on Iowa Public Radio’s “River to River” program this week, Baeth said he had spent a lot of time with DNR officials who explained that the agency is already implementing maintenance plans for public lands.

House leaders initially referred Senate File 516 to the Environmental Protection Committee, but some GOP reluctance was apparent before a subcommittee advanced the measure on the second attempt. House leaders then reassigned the bill to the State Government Committee, signaling that there might not be enough votes to bring it out of Environmental Protection.

Republican State Representatives Austin Harris and Derek Wulf voted Senate File 516 out of a State Government subcommittee this week, over Baeth’s objection. The bill was the agenda for the full committee’s March 30 meeting, but following a long caucus of GOP members, State Government chair Jane Bloomingdale did not bring it up for discussion.

Bloomingdale told Bleeding Heartland, “We did not have the votes in committee to move the bill forward. Decided at this time to continue working on the issues and get a better bill next year.”

She added that Harris and Wulf “did a great job reaching out to various interest groups.” She expects that work to continue to inform next year’s legislation.

Leaders of some organizations that had lobbied against Senate File 516 welcomed news of the bill’s demise. Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation president Joe McGovern told Bleeding Heartland, “While we are glad the bill did not move forward we are more than willing to work with all sides on good policy to remedy as many concerns as possible.” 

Sierra Club Iowa chapter director Pam Mackey Taylor commented, “Iowans enjoy their parks, trails, and recreation areas. Iowa currently ranks toward the bottom in the percentage of land available as public lands. It makes sense to allow the Department of Natural Resources to expand parks, trails, and recreation areas.”

Although some bills that die in the Iowa legislature’s funnel come back as sections of appropriations bills later in the session, Senate File 516 is unlikely to be resurrected in that way. It doesn’t appear to be a top priority for House and Senate leaders or Governor Kim Reynolds.

Top image: The Great Western Trail in Linn Township in northwestern Warren County, Iowa, just south of Fillmore Street. Photo by Tim Kiser, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5, available via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Thank you, Laura, for this good analysis

    A few further thoughts. First, many Iowa citizens contacted legislators about this bill because of what was at stake. I know at least two people who cried with relief when they found out the bill was dead for the year. Representative Austin Baeth, thank you so much. Thank you, Senators Boulton, Garriott, and Jochum. And many thanks to the other legislators who actively opposed the bill, as well as to the conservationists who pushed hard against it as individuals and organizations.

    Second, the Iowa DNR is between a rock and a hard place. The agency is grossly underfunded for everything it is expected to do, and keeping fully on top of land management needs, especially control of invasive species, is a challenge on any Iowa land. The pattern of underfunding public agencies and then criticizing them for the results is an obvious Republican strategy, and a scary one. The DNR is working hard. But I have no doubt this bill will be more cleverly drafted next time around.

    Third, a “key Republican lawmaker” has said this bill will be back next year. Iowans who care about conservation and public land need to get ready. If you are a caring Iowan who sat out this year, please plan to help next year.

    Finally, there are some wonderful farmers and landowners in Iowa who care as deeply about conservation as anyone in this state. Their actions prove it. The Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa Corn Growers Association, and Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, however, are a different story. And they should not, through their money and political clout, control Iowa conservation policies.