Iowa’s Yellow River State Forest is in extreme northeast Iowa. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Department of Natural Resources)
A bill that has the potential to restrict new public lands acquisitions — and that was shifted to its second Iowa House committee after passage by the first committee was in doubt — got preliminary approval on Wednesday.
The bill would prioritize the maintenance of state-owned lands over acquisitions.
Its supporters in a Wednesday subcommittee hearing of the House State Government Committee said the Iowa Department of Natural Resources can do a better job of maintaining its current public spaces. Supporters also argued those public spaces can choke the budgets of counties that can’t collect taxes on them, and that if land is undesirable for row crops, it should be made available to starting cattle farmers.
“If we want to get more ground, we should be able to maintain what we have,” said Bo Fox, a Monona County supervisor in far western Iowa who raises cattle in the Loess Hills.
He said there are thousands of acres of public land in his county, which has a population of about 8,800, and a lack of property tax receipts puts undue pressure on those residents who own taxable ground.
Opponents of the bill said public lands can be a crucial economic boon for rural areas to draw people for public parks and recreational trails.
“We have a very difficult time building trails, and this bill would make it much more difficult,” said Dennis Goemaat, who leads the Linn County Conservation Department in eastern Iowa. “One of the real benefits of trails is that they form a lifeline from a rural community to urban.”
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The true effects of the bill remain clouded by ambiguity. It would make maintenance — along with potential partnerships for the public use of private lands — a priority over acquisitions. But what constitutes proper maintenance is not defined.
“It’s so vague, it doesn’t specify in any way, shape or form what maintenance means or who’s going to get to determine what it means,” said Fred Long, president of the Iowa Conservation Alliance, which opposes the bill.
The bill received Iowa Senate approval with a 33-14 vote earlier in March. It stalled briefly in the House Environmental Protection Committee and was moved to the State Government Committee, where on Wednesday it received support from two of three subcommittee members.
Rep. Austin Harris, R-Moulton, a farmer who led that subcommittee, said his property in Appanoose County in south-central Iowa abuts more than 7,000 acres of public land that he formerly hunted but has become difficult to traverse.
“It’s not passable,” he said. “We used to hunt on it, shotgun season, for several years. We stopped a few years ago because we weren’t even going to try to get through it anymore. And I think what this bill does, is that it’s saying that if we were going to have the opportunity to have land, you have to assume the responsibility of maintaining all of the land.”
Rep. Derek Wulf, R-Hudson, a farmer who also supported the bill in the subcommittee, added: “There is no perfect bill that we do down here. I think the intent of what we’re trying to do or what this bill is trying to accomplish is right. I think that we need to make sure that this state stays agriculturally driven.”
The previous House subcommittee hearing on the bill had overwhelming opposition from conservationists, hunters, bicyclists and others, but Wednesday’s hearing featured a steady stream of cattle producers who bemoaned the maintenance of public lands and the competition for currently private lands posed by the DNR.
However, Todd Coffelt, the department’s legislative liaison, said the DNR has not competed directly in an auction for land against a farmer for two decades and that, in the past four years, it has not purchased property from a conservation organization that competed for that property with a farmer at auction.
“We work with landowners who come forward who want to make that piece of property available to the public and want the DNR to manage the property for access,” he said.
Coffelt noted that the department acquired about 2,400 acres last year and that about 7% of it had been recently used to raise row crops.
Rep. Austin Baeth, D-Des Moines, who opposed the bill Wednesday, said the bill needs more specifics if legislators intend to correct existing maintenance issues with public lands.
“This is sloppy legislation,” he said. “Let’s shelve it. Let’s kill it. And we can rewrite something else next year.”
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