Paul W Johnson

Paul Johnson on Agriculture and Conservation

Before northeast-Iowa farmer Paul Johnson died in early 2021, he served as an Iowa state legislator, the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. In light of some current federal policy discussions (e.g. about monopolies in the agricultural sector), Paul’s family is posting here one of the position papers he released during his unsuccessful 2004 U.S. House campaign in Iowa’s fourth Congressional district.

Any discussion of agriculture must start with recognition of its success. For the first time in humankind’s long journey there need no longer be fear of hunger. That hunger still exists in America and abroad, is an indictment of our unwillingness, not our inability, to care for each other. A big thanks is in order to those who have toiled in the fields for the past 13,000 years and in the research efforts of the past 100 years. Iowa farmers and researchers are a big part of that achievement. 

It is because we have been so successful that we have the luxury today to question our future. But question we must.

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Traveling in the Right Direction

The late Paul W. Johnson wrote the following essay as an introduction to Chapter Five of “The Essential Aldo Leopold: Quotations and Commentaries,” C. Meine and R. Knight, eds., University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. It is reproduced here with permission of the UW Press and Curt Meine. Paul was a staunch advocate of land use policies which served people and conserved natural resources. During his career, he served as an Iowa state legislator from Decorah, chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The need to conserve soil and water seems obvious today. It was not always so. When Aldo Leopold began his conservation career with the US Forest Service, our nation was on a destructive rampage. Forests and croplands were thought to exist in limitless supply. Rangelands were considered useful only to the extent that they could support livestock grazing; range health was not an issue. Wetlands were considered wastelands. Surface waters were treated as sewers. Meandering streams were deemed too slow and inefficient, and wild rivers needed to be harnessed “for the good of mankind.”

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A story of hope and the Leopold Center's first leader


Paul W. Johnson passed away in February 2021. His family and Dennis Keeney gave permission to share the text of the forward he wrote for Keeney’s 2015 book The Keeney Place: Life in the Heartland.

In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act. It offered states 30,000 acres of land for each of their Senators and Representatives. The land was to be sold and its proceeds used to establish colleges in each state to provide higher education for the “industrial classes.” These institutions became known as “land-grant colleges,” and today every state in the Union has at least one land-grant university. In 1887 the Hatch Act added research, and in 1914 the Smith-Lever Act added an extension component. Today, land-grant universities, with their education, extension, and research components can be credited with one of the most revolutionary changes in the status of humanity that our world has ever witnessed.

What does this have to do with The Keeney Place: A Life in the Heartland? Everything.

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The Iowa land ethic

Editor’s note: Paul W. Johnson died on February 15, 2021. His family wanted to share the text of these previously unpublished remarks, delivered to the Iowa Environmental Council’s Annual Conference on October 11, 2013. Paul was introduced by Ralph Rosenberg and recorded by Matt Hauge. Mike Delaney shared this text in a February 16, 2021 special edition of the email “Raccoon River Watershed Association News.”

I can’t help but comment on Ralph; he was the chair of our Energy and Environmental Protection Committee for years in the Iowa legislature when I was there, and when David [Osterberg] was there. We had a wonderful time–it was almost Camelot–we couldn’t do anything wrong. Whatever we wanted to do Ralph would guide us and we got it done. We did REAP [Resource Enhancement and Protection]; we did energy efficiency we did groundwater protection, a number of things, and it was a lot of fun. And it was bipartisan believe it or not; we really worked together.

We had a unanimous vote on REAP in the Iowa House of Representatives. I think there were 98 members there that day, and everyone voted for it, so it was a good time, and I often think back on those times as some of the best times of my life.

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Iowa agriculture, climate change, and "SWAPA"

Paul W. Johnson is a preacher’s kid, former Iowa state legislator, former chief of the USDA Soil Conservation Service/Natural Resources Conservation Service, former director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and a retired farmer. -promoted by Laura Belin

In the early 1980s there was a serious farm crisis in Iowa. Land and commodity prices were falling, so banks were calling in farm loans and foreclosing on farmers who couldn’t pay up. Maurice Dingman was bishop of the Des Moines area during those years, and he was speaking up strongly for farmers who were suffering during this time. I was impressed by his defense of family farmers.

In 1987 David Osterberg and I were serving in the Iowa legislature–he representing Mount Vernon, I representing Decorah–and working on groundwater protection. Industrial agriculture sent their lobbyists to weaken our legislation, and newspapers were carrying stories about their fierce opposition to our work.

During this time, Bishop Dingman phoned us and suggested we have lunch together. 

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Make Iowa great again: Yes, we can

Paul W. Johnson wrote this piece in 2017, when Republicans in the state legislature passed a budget bill that defunded Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and eliminated it from the Iowa Code. Governor Terry Branstad signed the bill and left in place the sections redirecting funding away from the Leopold Center to the newer, corporate-friendly Nutrient Reduction Center at ISU. But he item-vetoed the section that would have removed all code references to the Leopold Center. Consequently, the center still exists but with no funding for research and education on sustainable agriculture. -promoted by Laura Belin

Aldo Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887. He died in 1948 while fighting a grass fire on his neighbor’s farm. He and his wife, Estella, are buried in a cemetery in Burlington. Aldo Leopold is known today as the father of the wilderness idea, the father of wildlife management in the U.S., and the father of the land ethic. The land ethic encourages us humans to understand that we belong to the community of all life on earth and that we need to learn to love and respect it.

“Conservation means harmony between men and land. When land does well for its owner and the owner does well by his land: when both end up better by reason of their partnership, we have conservation. When one or the other grows poorer, we do not.” -Aldo Leopold  

That is why we established the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in 1987.

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