Who speaks for nature? Can justice and citizenship guide us?

Photo of Neil Hamilton speaking at the Iowa Nature Summit on November 17 provided by the author and published with permission.

Neil Hamilton is the former director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center and professor emeritus at Drake University law school. He delivered these remarks at the Iowa Nature Summit at Drake University on November 17, 2023.

My hope in planning the Summit was our collective work can help change the trajectory and effectiveness of how we advocate for nature in Iowa. I hope you agree we are off to a good start.

Elevating nature in our discussions

One challenge we face is elevating the discussion of nature to the place it deserves in the public discourse. It is too easy for those threatened by our issues to characterize us as just a bunch of nature lovers—people who like to play outdoors while others are trying to make a living. This is a dangerous mind set because if political issues involving nature are reduced to being between Iowa’s pigs and you playing in the river—history shows pigs may win every time.

Our respect for nature is about much more than just enjoyment—as vital as that is. Our respect for nature focuses on the essential role—the foundational role—nature plays in supporting life. Without nature there is no human survival, it is that simple. That is why water quality, soil health, and climate are essential to our future—it is why we need to elevate the importance of nature in our advocacy.

If we want the view of Iowa nature in five years to be better and not just a continuum of little progress and slow decline, what must change? How do we get out of the rut—or ephemeral gully—we find ourselves in today?

Take a look around you—look at this crowd—at the breadth of nature you represent. We gathered here today are not just a start—we are a measure of how much Iowans love and appreciate nature!

The central premise of my talk is who speaks for nature in our state.

Even though we are many, we lack a unified voice speaking for nature. This contrasts to the constant amplified voice coming from agriculture. The proliferation of nature groups means our positions are often resource specific and our organizations limited in size. Having no overarching body to speak for nature leaves a gap in advocacy forcing some groups by necessity to play a larger role than their mission may suggest.

This asymmetry means when an issue arises, such as the outlandish claims of success on the 10th anniversary of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, there was no unified voice presenting “the other side”—the nature side—of the Iowa story. Instead Iowans were treated to a one-sided echo chamber from those happy with the status quo while the voices of nature were mostly silent. This is dangerous for nature’s advocates—especially in 2024 when we can expect another frontal assault on public lands, and funding for parks, trails, and wildlife areas.

So what can we do?

There are many steps we can take. Hopefully many bright ideas will emerge from our discussions. Some things are clear to me—we need more collaboration, more cooperation, and better communication between our nature groups—and we need to build on the many connections we all share.

We need to be more assertive and vocal in our defense of nature and more strategic in our advocacy. Our failure to fully fund the REAP [Resource Enhancement and Protection] program at $20 million a year—let alone the $35 million needed to account for inflation, is a disgrace. Twelve years and no funding for IWILL [the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund] is just as disgraceful. By failing to raise the sales tax we have missed out on investing over $2 billion to improve water quality, protect soil health, expand wildlife habitat, and increase recreational opportunities.

One remark heard throughout the Summit concerns the need to support IWILL and raise the sales tax to fund the trust. But believe it or not, as we speak, the Iowa Farm Bureau is on record asking the legislature to begin the process of repealing the portion of the Constitutional Amendment creating the fund so it cannot be used to acquire land—all before it receives a dollar!

Are we too willing to accept minor victories, a track of land protected here and bad legislation that didn’t pass, at least yet. Are we too easily brushed off and told to be patient? If our reward for patience is a failing NRS [Nutrient Reduction Strategy], deteriorating soil health, underfunding DNR [the Iowa Department of Natural Resources], and refusing to protect water quality, it is really no reward.

What does being “Iowa nice” get us, if those who see nature as an obstacle to their profits are happy to continue abusing it at breakneck speed—and expect public approval and funding for their work? There is no reason to expect improvements without a fight. Fredrick Douglass reminds us—progress does not come without struggle. It is foolish to think our hopes for nature in Iowa will ever be achieved without conflict or controversy—or through voluntary acts alone. This is the magical thinking underpinning the NRS. No one gives up power voluntarily.

As I have said many times, Iowa needs more truth tellers and fewer happy talkers. I am optimistic positive changes are possible but we need to ask some hard questions about the reality we face.

What is nature’s future?

As we reflect on what we have heard and move into our work this afternoon, here are some ideas to consider.

1. How do we expand citizen science and engagement? River cleanups, water quality monitoring, prairie seed harvests, and field days, all illustrate this potential. The more opportunities we create and the more citizens we engage build a broader political constituency for nature while doing good.

2. How do citizenship and civic responsibility shape this work? – Just as we share a right to nature, we also share a duty to protect nature. It is not someone else’s responsibility, if we care – we need to act. One responsibility is to prevent legitimizing inappropriate uses of land through technology. Just because our equipment it is bigger is no excuse to plow under pasture and just because generous tax subsidies are available pipeline boondoggles don’t need to be approved.

The key question is who decides what is “appropriate” – but this is an issue at the heart of all environmental debates. The answer is society must decide what is appropriate – not just the marketplace. We never ask what is nature’s standard for determining when an action is appropriate? If our technology – or laws – allow us to do something, drain a wetland or plow a prairie does that mean we should? Is the only calculation the potential economic gain or shouldn’t we weigh nature’s future – and our children’s future – in our decisions?

3. What role can nature play in local politics? If the question is how does protecting nature usually play out before county boards and city councils, the answer most often is not well? We understand nature is not a luxury – but the reality is most local policies, like zoning, community development, and school curriculums, are not built on concern for nature. Instead, nature is treated, if at all, as an “add-on” – something afforded only if there is extra money or someone complains loudly enough.

This is why two examples discussed yesterday are so important and inspirational. Polk County gave citizens the right to vote on and approve over $115 million in two bond issues so the County Conservation Board can fund nature—and it is not alone in county nature bonding. This shows how local governments can harness public support for nature if they find the courage to ask. The School of the Wild demonstrates how every Iowa school district can help children learn about nature—and collaborate with local nature groups, if they have the vision to do so—so let us start encouraging them!

4. Some ask “what is enough?” when it comes to nature and land protection. The premise is we can never afford to protect all the “nature” we need. Viewed this way the debate becomes simply a question of what can we afford. This approach is ill-conceived. The personal duty for conservation cannot be premised on the view “I will do as much conservation as the public pays me to do and only that.” This is the recipe for failure reflected in our voluntary only approach.

The question isn’t “when is there enough nature”; instead the real question is “what does nature need”? The answer is simple, nature needs us to change our attitudes so more landowners, citizens, and politicians care. Land doesn’t need to be owned by the public to be protected. Landowners can protect their land at any time, if they so desire.

Some believe the distance we need to travel to change minds to protect nature is too great and the cost even greater. I don’t agree. Changing attitudes on how we view our responsibilities to nature, doesn’t need to carry any price tag, and the distance we need to travel is only a few inches, it is all in our heads and in our hearts.

Thinking about freedom and how we see nature

We all love freedom, it is a value and goal we share. It is at the heart of our democracy and legal system. Some believe the thirst for freedom explains why many oppose regulations. But Andrew Bacevich in Age of Illusions, makes a powerful statement about freedom, when he notes “employed as a rationale for policy, freedom possesses a surprising elasticity. It can justify almost anything, it prohibits virtually nothing.”

This links to a 1756 Edmund Burke quote, “The great error of our nature is not to know when to stop” … and thereby ultimately “to lose all we have gained by the insatiable pursuit after more.”

You see these two powerful forces at work in Iowa reflected in our attitudes toward nature. Freedom and knowing no limits—are harnessed in how we use land and water—free from the responsibility of regulation or public good and shackled to the conventional wisdom we love the land and are feeding the world. Combined these forces drive our soil, water, and climate issues. We accept no limits on our “freedom” and never know when to stop.

Rules to protect nature don’t mean the government is coming to take your land. Instead, the rules help insure you do not take away rights from other citizens to enjoy nature. As John F. Lacey said in 1901, “the immensity of man’s power to destroy imposes a responsibility to preserve.” This is a responsibility we owe our children—and nature—to embrace.

We have a new state motto—Freedom to Flourish. I may be alone here, but I fear it is just a dog whistle to the MAGA crowd—at its heart anti-public, anti-government code for elevating markets and economics over society.

Isn’t a fair question to ask where is the “Flourish” part—or is all the emphasis on the Freedom? If we are to flourish then rather than brag about the state having a $1.8 billion surplus and racing to find new ways to cut taxes and underfund needed public services—why isn’t this an opportunity to address programs in desperate need of funding?

Think of what Iowa could do with a small fraction of the surplus: fully funding REAP, monitoring water quality so the University of Iowa doesn’t need to hold a bake sale, replenishing the DNR budget so state employees can fulfill their duties, and supporting county soil conservation districts to have staff needed to assist landowners protecting water quality and improving soil health. These steps could actually help Iowa flourish, if our leaders cared. There is no reason to believe Iowa’s farmers will not embrace treating their farms as eco-systems if they have support and market alternatives to do so—to flourish!

The key issue often missing in our discussions of freedom is how we ignore the other side of the coin: responsibility. Real freedom carries with it responsibility to society and to other citizens. Freedom by itself is just another word for anarchy.

Responsibility and justice are both critical to our future

Responsibility flows from the ideal of an ordered society, with justice being the goal and measure of our success. Our embrace of social responsibility is the essence of citizenship –an opportunity and obligation we ignore at our peril.

What does Justice mean in the context of Nature? One goal of public policy should be to limit further deterioration of natural resources, by protecting prairie remnants and stopping wasteful destruction of grasslands, timber, and wildlife habitat. We all have a right to nature and should expect our laws will be enforced and the tools of justice employed, including the wise use of regulations.

Law should not be used to inflict damage on nature or protect bad actors from the consequences of their acts. Today, Iowa’s laws can inflict harm—right to farm laws privilege hog lots over neighbors, regulators place pipelines over property rights, and political compromises like the non-point exemption shield most water pollution from remedy.

Sadly, some people worry it is too risky to speak of justice because listeners might take offense. Having spent 40 years teaching about justice, I don’t agree. Justice is not something to fear—instead it is the basis of hope. Justice is about preserving opportunities, about valuing and hearing all voices, and expecting government to function. We all have our own internal sense of justice and each of us knows unjust conduct when we see it.

Unfortunately we don’t often ask what is unjust, but if you take a moment you could each develop a list. Here is an example—Iowa’s “no role for regulation” mantra is inherently unjust. Giving individuals unlimited freedom to act without fear the public will set reasonable expectations for their conduct is unjust. It ignores the proper responsibility of government to protect the public welfare—and nature—and instead shifts the burdens and costs to individual citizens expecting them to perform the responsibilities being shirked by public officials. This disenfranchises citizens, especially in rural areas, and perverts and ignores the rule and role of law.

Justice is not a shackle but a beacon

The real shackles—the ones we experience every day are the shackles of conventional wisdom—the dogma telling us what to think and the questions we shouldn’t ask—what it is unreasonable for us to expect. Consider the “truths” we are to embrace:

  • corn and ethanol are the economic future of Iowa;
  • we can never have too many pigs;
  • we cannot afford more parks, trails, and wildlife areas;
  • we don’t need science or data, or to monitor water quality because—trust me—it is getting better.

I could go on—but so can each of you. Part of our challenge is recognizing how these shackles of conventional wisdom, these truths we are told to accept, are often not true but instead just rationalizations protecting the economic determinism dominating our state. One that sees nature—our land, soil, water, and wildlife—as simply a storehouse free for the looting—without restraint and with little regard for others or the public.

We heard other, better, truths at the Summit. We heard from Iowa Tourism about the billions in economic activity tied to nature and the outdoors. We heard business leaders say how critical nature is to growing our workforce. We heard about the many lands being protected and the efforts of individual landowners and groups to restore prairies, create wetlands, and embrace wildlife habitat. It is an injustice if these truths are ignored.

Our challenge is not just to call out and confront actions we find unjust—as hundreds of Iowa landowners are now doing with the misuse of eminent domain to support the CO2 pipeline boondoggles. Our responsibility is to stand up and offer an alternative path, one recognizing and valuing nature—one that understands how it contributes not just to our enjoyment and fulfillment but to all dimensions of society. You understand this responsibility or you wouldn’t be here today.

We are nature’s advocates. Is our job is to confront injustice, to defend and define nature, and to offer our voices and experiences to elevate and celebrate nature.

Returning to the question where I began—“Who speaks for nature?”—the answer is we do—all of us, and your groups whatever the size and shape. It is our responsibility to share our critically important voices for nature. This is a grand exercise and adventure—one we share as collaborators and cooperators for a healthier Iowa nature. So now let us get to work.

About the Author(s)

Neil Hamilton

  • amen to " Iowa needs more truth tellers and fewer happy talkers"

    the unified voice he seeks is the role played in more functional states/nations by a political party and here the Dems are sadly lacking and there is no viable alternative.
    Appreciate his taking a stand but is he kidding with “We have a new state motto—Freedom to Flourish. I may be alone here, but I fear it is just a dog whistle to the MAGA crowd—at its heart anti-public, anti-government code for elevating markets and economics over society” the Gov and company are upfront about this go check out her state of the state addresses on IPBS where she talks about the gov as a company, that’s a megaphone not a dog whistle. When Chris Jones got pushed out for daring to do his job and speak out for the protection of the commons did the UIowa President protect him, did the faculty senate stand up and threaten to strike on behalf of the public good (or even the integrity of their own jobs), not so much as when the Universities gave up their COVID protections without even a whimper our best and brightest won’t even speak up even when their lives are at risk and with pollution and climate change that’s all of us now, clock is ticking…

  • Nature stakeholders

    The fragmentation of conservation groups in Iowa is a fact. Republicans will never approve a sales tax increase to “fund the trust.”. Their proposals to do so by changing the “formula” were designed to further divide conservation groups, and in that they have succeeded. It continues to befuddle me that Iowans voted by 63 percent to approve the land and water legacy trust fund in the same year they turned out of power the party that put the question on the ballot for them in the first place. Over the intervening years, the only “clean” legislation to fund the Trust has been offered by Democrats. If this continues to be their priority, conservation groups need to decide if they are going to “dance with the one who brought them.” Historically, conservation and environmental voters have not been a reliable voting bloc.

  • they need to stand against Big Ag

    the conservation groups and the Dems would need to be willing to focus all of their energy/efforts on the at least weakening (including not supporting) the main source of our related woes and that seems most unlikely but if anything might bring them together it would be a common enemy. The tragic campaign of https://www.austinfrerick.com/ was most telling.

  • I won't try to respond to a previous comment, since apparently that is still not possible...

    …but I’m genuinely curious about the following statement and would appreciate learning more about what was meant. “Historically, conservation and environmental voters have not been a reliable voting bloc.”

  • I think Iowa conservation groups

    should cease all efforts to persuade the legislature to raise the sales tax. Republicans would only ever agree to do that if they simultaneously changed the funding formula to drain money away from priorities that would improve the environment.

    IWILL may have been a good idea 15 years ago but we need to let that go.

  • agreed there is no reasoning with Repugs on this issue

    Unless we get some relief from the feds (at least until the Supreme Court squashes it) the only viable effort I can see is for conservation groups to hold Dems to a higher standard and offer a real alternative for future/younger voters. Will life here after the decline/demise of the Boomers be more of the same or can we move on from past fixations (including the 1st in the nation nonsense) and start building something new for the next gen?

  • Were there many attendees under fifty at the Iowa Nature Summit?

    I wasn’t able to attend, and am wondering what it was like. I haven’t found any “reviews” online.

  • Iowa Nature Summit Attendees

    PrairieFan, I was only able to attend the Summit on its second day, but there were many Drake students in the room and a panel of young leaders contributed to some robust inter generational discussion. As for the question about the voting bloc, I can’t speak for Neil but I know from my own years of lobbying that elected officials do not see environmental interests as having an impact at the ballot box. In fact, there are multiple examples where those who value nature allow perfect to be the enemy of good. One example with profound impact as the Florida voters who tried to force Al Gore to take a public stance on an airport project they opposed. Despite his excellent record on the environment, they abandoned him for Ralph Nader when he remained silent. The hanging chads in Broward County wouldn’t have been an issue and we wouldn’t have the controversial Supteme Court ruling that I believe continues to influence Republicans’ today – including after the 2020 election. For more details on the Florida environmental voters, read “The Swamp” about the Everglades….

  • Thank you, sjudkins!

    I really appreciate being able to read your point of view. I’m very glad that Drake students and young leaders were there.

    And I was once told by an experienced conservation lobbyist at the Iowa Statehouse (a Republican, this was several decades ago) that the environment, as an issue, would not really be taken seriously by the Iowa Legislature unless/until there was a clear example of a legislator losing a seat as a result of supporting the anti-environment side of an environmental issue. To the best of my knowledge, that has never happened.