New environmental council director eyes action on water quality, energy, climate

By: - March 12, 2021 2:29 pm

The Iowa Environmental Council is working to improve water quality in Iowa’s lakes, including West Okoboji Lake, shown here. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Brian Campbell’s new job in Des Moines charges him with helping to stem climate change, regulate pollution from farms and encourage the use of electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels across the state.

That could be a bumpy ride. But that’s OK, because the electric vehicle he drives is quiet, he notes.

In mid-January, Campbell became executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Iowa Environmental Council, one of the state’s largest organizations working on environmental issues. It’s an organization of organizations, and also has individual members. The council just passed its 25th anniversary.

Brian Campbell is executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council. (Photo courtesy of IEC)

Campbell had been working on these issues as director of sustainability, education and partnerships at Central College in Pella. A student of environmental history and present day advocacy, he has been immersed in the biggest environmental issues of the day.

“A lot of what I was doing was helping our students and other colleagues there understand the policies that shape these environmental challenges” and teaching advocacy techniques, Campbell said.

“It was obvious that a small private college can do a lot and can be really bold in its work around sustainability, but it also takes a really collective effort at the policy level,” he said in an interview.

Some of those key issues carry over to the council’s work: water quality, energy and sustainability. 

Campbell had worked with many of the member organizations that are part of the council. 

When Jennifer Terry left the IEC executive director position to return to Des Moines Water Works, Campbell welcomed the chance to work for the council. He has a bachelor’s degree from Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina; a master’s from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California; and a doctorate from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He focused largely on training, teaching, and research on the history and culture of American environmentalism.


Campbell grew up on Alabama’s Gulf Coast and in the mountains of western North Carolina. He enjoys Iowa’s lakes, rivers and trails. 

Now, Campbell is exploring the dynamics of some of Iowa’s most high-profile issues and how they relate to each other. For example, the council’s central work on energy issues — conservation, solar, wind, renewables — along with land stewardship and water quality, are reflected in the mother of all 21st century environmental issues, climate change. 

“I think we see climate change as a thread that really connects those things,” Campbell said. “We will continue to see more opportunities to talk about agriculture and helping farms be more resilient to the impacts of climate change, but also helping farmers be part of the solution to improving soil health and sequestering carbon.”

Union Grove State Park beach near Gladbrook has had issues with algae toxins and fecal bacteria. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Environmental Council)

Campbell also sees an opportunity to continue to pursue a sales tax increase to fill the penniless, voter-approved Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Gov. Kim Reynolds had backed what would have been the first legislation to provide money for the constitutionally protected account. But the economic disruption that came along with the coronavirus pandemic led her to shelve the idea for now. 

The environmental council continues to build support for the increase, Campbell said. 

“When I took this job in mid-January, I fully expected (Invest in Iowa) could be a huge part of the initial phase of work. When that was set aside, I think we saw that as an opportunity to build a kind of coalition that can support it. We hope and anticipate that that will get reintroduced in the next session,” he added.

The council set up The site explains the water quality, recreational, and economic development issues surrounding the work that would be paid for by the fund. Campbell is reaching out to business groups and others to diversify support. 

“We want to improve the quality of life for Iowa and improve this as an environment for attracting businesses,” Campbell said.

Ledges State Park is in Boone County, Iowa. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The COVID-19 pandemic stressed the importance of Iowa’s outdoor activities, as people poured into parks and hunting and fishing license sales soared, Campbell said. The pandemic canceled many events planned for the centennial of the state park system in 2020, but people went anyway. 

In some parts of the country, bike shops had trouble keeping inventory on the floor

“I think we’ve seen that people want and need access to outdoor recreation, now more than ever,” Campbell said. “I don’t think anybody anticipates that will go away just because people are vaccinated. Now is the time we need funding for parks and trails and we need clean water that people can paddle in, swim in and fish in.”

Outdoor recreation is an important economic boost for rural areas, where bike stores, bait shops and sporting goods stores benefit, Campbell said. 

Iowa’s public land in short supply

Iowans are beginning to use the parks more, but the state’s system is one of the smallest in the country. Iowa has consistently ranked in the bottom several states based on the amount of public land per capita.

Campbell, who admired the mountains and forests when he lived in Oregon and California, says that ranking is hard to miss.

The visitor center at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, Prairie City, Iowa. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

“From the perspective of an environmental historian, when I think about the lack of public land in Iowa, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we haven’t always seen the landscape of Iowa as beautiful and dramatic in the same way we see Yosemite or Yellowstone. Historically, people saw those places in a way that’s different than they saw the prairie.

“I think we have to learn to appreciate the beauty and the nuance of places like Iowa. There is tremendous biodiversity and natural beauty,” Campbell said. “One thing that is absolutely a resource in Iowa is our rivers and streams, and that’s something that can be accessible to people in all corners of the state.”

The council pushes for renewable energy

The council has pushed utilities to convert to wind, solar and other renewable energy while shutting down coal and gas plants. 

For his part, Campbell has driven an electric vehicle for nine years. “It’s comfortable, it’s quiet, it’s low maintenance and it’s low cost,” he said. Prices of electric passenger vehicles are coming down and President Joe Biden is pushing for a transition to electric vehicles.

Iowa has a growing wind energy industry. (Photo courtesy of the American Wind Energy Association)

“We have the technology to have very comparable kinds of vehicles, and I think it is going to surprise people how quickly that transition happens,” Campbell said.

While the council is pushing for tax credits for solar installations, it also is supporting better energy conservation. The organization was among the critics of legislation several years ago that reduced the investor-owned utilities’ energy conservation programs for homeowners. 

“The most cost-effective way to manage energy needs is to have better energy efficiency,” Campbell said. 

Voluntary water quality solutions ‘not enough’

Campbell is among those who think the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the backbone of a system that pays farmers to voluntarily help conserve soil and reduce chemical runoff, has failed. 

“I think we’ve seen that voluntary solutions have not been enough to get us to our goals,” Campbell said. “I think we need a different strategy. We’ve had funding available and we’ve had good science and technical support, and we’ve seen that is not enough.”

A farmer harvests corn near Slater, Iowa. on Oct. 17, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Which, Campbell said, leaves us with regulation — an approach that agricultural groups have fought vehemently. Some of them have said any attempt to regulate pollution from farms in the way that all other industries in Iowa are regulated would bring extensive court challenges.

“I think it is obvious that we need some kind mandatory system,” Campbell said. Some surrounding states, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, made that move years ago. 

“We already have all sorts of regulations for different businesses and land uses, so I don’t think it’s radical to think we should have the same expectations for farms in Iowa,” he added.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.