Natural resources panel eyes water quality, parks, dams

The Iowa Natural Resource Commission oversees state parks, including Walnut Woods State Park in West Des Moines. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Iowa Natural Resource Commission is pushing a major new conservation and recreation plan and continued support for existing programs, as Iowa celebrates the centennial of the state park system. 

The governor-appointed panel is calling for: 

 — Approval of a sales tax increase to fund the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. That would provide $150 million or more for conservation work on farms, trail improvements, habitat, and water quality work. The increase is part of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ budget and would be offset by cuts in income and property taxes. Lawmakers have suggested gaining approval could be a long process, even after a decade of debate.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Kayla Lyon told commissioners last week that the 10-year wait for approval of the sales tax increase has led to changes in the spending program for the IWILL, or Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy program. The new approach will be laid out in a separate bill and will shift programs previous funded through Senate File 512.  “This is a big deal for Iowa and for natural resources and so we’re pretty excited about it,” Lyon said.

Commissioner Marcus Branstad of Adel said he and other commissioners will want to watch to make sure the resources department doesn’t lose money for some programs in the new arrangement.

— Appropriation of $9.6 million for lake restorations and water quality improvements, the same target as the past few years. The state has 19 projects in progress and 16 more in planning stages. “This is one of our premier programs in the state,” said commission Chairwoman Margo Underwood of Clear Lake. 

— The same $5 million annual appropriation lawmakers have made since 2012 to fix up the state parks. 

— Full funding of $20 million for REAP, the Resource Enhancement and Protection Program, for conservation, recreation, historical and infrastructure projects. REAP would be rolled into the sales tax program and extended beyond its 2021 expiration under Reynolds’ plan.

Underwood noted that Reynolds will help kick off a yearlong celebration of the centennial with a special event May 28 at Backbone State Park near Strawberry Point – on the exact day Backbone turns 100. Backbone was the first park in the state system.

Underwood said demand for parks improvements has far outstripped the $11 million typically appropriated by the Legislature. The program is supposed to get $20 million. In the first 10 years after REAP started in 1989, the target was $30 million but that was changed to $20 million when the program was extended to 2021.   “The demand is greater” than $11 million can meet, Underwood said. “I’ve seen the results of these projects across the state. They are just amazing.”

DNR staff noted that the $3.2 million spent on city and county REAP grants last year would have been increased by $1.1 million if REAP had been fully funded at $20 million.

— Appropriation of $900,000 for the Woodland Health Initiative and $2 million for grants, technical assistance and education in local communities. These programs help fight against emerald ash borer and other threats.

— Expand the Iowa Habitat and Access Program to 50,000 acres. Currently, landowners have enrolled 22,643 acres at 162 sites that are open for hunting. Commissioners noted that Iowa ranks 49th in public land. Landowners get money for habitat improvements in return for allowing access. 

— Provide $1 million for low-head dam modifications and for water trails work. That would be a status quo appropriation. 

— Support for Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ programs to encourage youths to hunt and fish.

— Educate the public and decision-makers on the threat of invasive species.