Stalled public lands bill moves forward in Iowa House

By: - March 20, 2023 4:03 pm

The Des Moines River at Dolliver State Park near Fort Dodge. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A Republican lawmaker who was a holdout last week on a bill that would prioritize the maintenance of public lands over new acquisitions has now decided to advance it.

In the face of considerable public opposition, Senate File 516 was tabled Thursday for further discussion by an Iowa House subcommittee because only one of its three members wanted to recommend it to the full Environmental Protection Committee.

However, Rep. Helena Hayes, R-New Sharon — who initially resisted advancing the bill — changed course by the next day. She did not immediately respond to a request to comment for this article, but in a lengthy email she sent Friday to people who had contacted her about the bill, Hayes said it deserves consideration by the committee. Iowa Capital Dispatch obtained a copy of the email.

“Because there are valid questions and concerns on both sides of the issue that still need to be addressed and shared with a larger group of people, I agree with the chair of the subcommittee to pass this bill into the Environmental Protection committee,” Hayes wrote in the email. “I encourage each of you to reach out immediately to those committee members with your thoughts as we continue to consider the full extent of this bill.”

The bill’s opponents say it might limit the expansion of public areas and recreational trails. Lawmakers who support it have insisted that the bill is meant to ensure existing public areas are well kept.

But a representative of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation said last week that the group supports the new legislation specifically because it would limit new public land acquisitions. The Farm Bureau has been advocating for years to keep more land available for farmers to buy.

The bill passed in the Iowa Senate last week with a 33-14 vote, and by the time it was considered Thursday by the subcommittee, the Farm Bureau was the only group that had registered in support of the bill. On Saturday, the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association also declared it was for the bill.

The potential effects of the bill are unclear because its language is somewhat vague. The bill would strip wording from existing law that directs the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Iowa Department of Transportation to acquire and protect “open space” lands and to create recreational trails throughout the state. It would modify other wording to put priority on maintenance and protection and require the consideration of partnerships with private landowners “as an alternative to acquiring new property.”

That would include the Iowa Habitat and Access Program, in which the state provides funding and guidance for habitat improvements in exchange for landowners making their properties available to hunters.

The bill does not specifically say how the maintenance of public lands and partnerships with landowners should be prioritized over acquisitions.

“One thing the bill does not do is put a moratorium on future land purchases,” Hayes said in the Friday email.

Hayes noted she is a former park ranger and county conservation naturalist and that she cherishes public areas.

Rep. Dean Fisher, R-Garwin, who led the subcommittee last week, also voted to recommend the bill.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect that the bill was not discussed at length on Tuesday.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.