Iowa should invest in natural resources, recreation and water quality

Iowans have a reputation of being hard workers, honest, neighborly, connected to the land and genuinely “Iowa nice”. Unfortunately, this reputation does not hold true when we look at our state’s record of protecting its natural resources and investing in outdoor recreation. It has been almost 10 years since Iowa voters amended the Iowa Constitution to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. This was no small undertaking, passing two sessions of the legislature and an overwhelming vote of 63% of Iowa voters in 2010.

Yet here we are, 15 years after the legislature established the Sustainable Funding Committee to identify solutions to address Iowa’s water quality issues, soil loss, recreation and park funding challenges and general “quality of life” amenities, and not one dime has been deposited in the trust fund. Iowans have missed over $1 billion dollars that should have been invested in “enhancing water quality and natural areas in this state including parks, trails and fish and wildlife habitat and conserving agricultural soils.”

The 2006 Sustainable Funding Committee was made up of a diverse group of Iowa stakeholders, including commodity groups, conservation organizations, public health officials, sportsmen/women, legislators and environmental supporters. The charge of the committee was simple – explore mechanisms to adequately fund Iowa’s natural resource and recreation needs. The committee explored a variety of options, but eventually settled on 3/8 of one-cent sales tax increase. This model has been used successfully in Minnesota and Missouri for over three decades. The new funding was estimated to provide approximately $150 million annually that would flow through existing programs and be accountable and measurable in an annual report. A funding formula was created in Chapter 461 of the Iowa Code and agreed upon to distribute the funds into seven categories – Natural Resources, Soil Conservation & Water Protection, Watershed Protection, REAP (Resource Enhancement & Protection), Local Conservation Partnerships, Trails and Lake Restoration.

So what is all the fuss about?

• Iowa ranks 47th in public lands, with only 3% open to public use.

• One in five Iowa children are considered obese.

• Over 40% of our lakes and rivers are considered too polluted for fishing and swimming.

• Over the past two decades, Iowa has lost 1.6 million acres of habitat.

• 25% of Iowans are not physically active, costing the state an estimated $5.3 billion annually in medical costs and lost worker productivity.

• Iowa comprises 3.3% of the land area in the Missouri Watershed, yet is responsible for 55% of the nitrate-nitrogen pollution in the river.

• 89 of Iowa’s 99 counties have seen their population decline over the past decade.

• Only about 50% of Iowa’s university graduates with a bachelor’s degree are able to find a job in Iowa after graduation.

• More than 90% of Iowa’s wetlands have been drained, resulting in 951 flood-related disaster declarations at a cost of $13.5 billion.

• Iowa is losing topsoil at an average of five tons per acre annually.

While the list can go on and on, it’s not all gloom and doom for our great state. There are many positives to focus on as we look to 2020 and beyond.

• Iowans voted to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in 2010, developing the road map for Iowa’s path to success.

• A child’s risk of obesity can be reduced by 60% if he or she lives close to parks, trails and green space.

• Each year 30 million visits are made to Iowa’s lakes and rivers generating almost $2 billion in spending.

• In 2018, Gov. Reynolds and the legislature took the first step to improve our state’s water quality by passing SF512 to dedicate funding toward implementing the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

• Towns like Madrid are reaping the economic benefits of the High Trestle Trail with over 250,000 visitors spending $6.7 million in Boone and Dallas counties last year.

• Outdoor recreation in Iowa generates $3 billion dollars in consumer spending.

• The Charles City White Water Park is boasting a $1 million economic impact in the town of 7,300.

On Jan. 14, Gov. Reynolds gave the Condition of the State Address and made a visionary statement asking legislators and all Iowans to “Join me in taking the first bold step, right now, this session. In the coming weeks, I’ll be introducing the Invest in Iowa Act – a bill that will significantly cut income taxes, create a sustainable funding source for our mental health system, reduce the burden of property tax payers, and fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.”

Gov. Reynolds has kept her promise and is traveling to Iowa communities spreading the message about her “Invest in Iowa” plan. There are good conversations occurring across the state regarding potential funding for Iowa’s Natural Resource & Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, mental health and tax relief. I would encourage you to be a part of the conversation. Contact your legislators and encourage their support in making 2020 the year Iowa invests in our natural resources, recreation, water quality, soil conservation, rural revitalization, economic development, public health, mental health, workforce and Iowa’s future.

Now is the time to clean up our rivers and lakes, protect our soils, invest in recreation, build active, vibrant communities, create opportunities to improve the health of Iowans, expand our trail network, repair our park infrastructure, provide access to quality outdoor experiences for our children and create an environment that will attract and retain a skilled workforce. The time is now to join the governor and take the first bold step to “Invest in Iowa” in 2020.

Matt Cosgrove is the director of the Webster County Conservation Board


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