Iowans came out in force at Iowa’s Capitol on Monday, March 4th to protest and stop proposed legislation that would have made it nearly impossible for a farmer or landowner to donate land to a local or state government agency, or for an agency to acquire lands for parks, wildlife areas, or water quality purposes. The Izaak Walton League was well represented by Mike Delaney, conservation director for the Iowa Division; Tim Wagner, national agriculture outreach coordinator; and five members from the Des Moines and Panora chapters.
In the Iowa House, HF 542 would have eliminated tax credits historically available to landowners willing to donate land or conservation easements. It would also have required the owner to cover the expense of all land maintenance for a period of ten years, before they could donate land to a government agency. In essence, there would be virtually no incentive for a landowner to donate his or her land to the Department of Natural Resources, their local county conservation board, or a local non-profit. In addition, the bill not only restricted the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, local conservation boards, and Iowa cities and counties from acquiring those lands, it also targeted traditional funding mechanisms used for acquiring lands and converting them to public use.
At a House sub-committee meeting Monday morning hosted by two Republicans and one Democrat, an estimated 400 people crammed into the room, with another 200 in the hallway. Approximately 40 conservation groups, numerous county conservation boards, cities and state agencies, and individuals were represented and opposed the bill. Only the Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Cattlemens Association supported the bill.
After the intense, hour-long hearing - in which more than 20 people representing conservation organizations, outdoors enthusiasts, and landowners passionately testified against the proposal - committee leaders announced the bill would go no further in the House.
A sister bill in the Iowa Senate, SSB 1221, garnered similar protest in the afternoon. As a result of the opposition, the Senate bill was weakened, to restrict non-profit organizations from using a State Revolving Fund for the acquisition of lands. It passed out of the Senate Natural Resource and Environment Committee on Tuesday, and now goes to the full Senate for debate. Our colleagues at the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and Iowa Environmental Council are asking citizens to contact their Senators and urge them to vote no on that bill.
Iowa ranks 47th in the nation in terms of public lands. Slightly less than 1 million acres are publicly owned, and roughly 60% of those lands are in road ditches. More than 30 million of Iowa’s 35 million acres are already used for intensive agriculture, most of that in corn and soybeans.
The ongoing capability of state and local agencies, as well as interested non-profits, to acquire marginal or sensitive farm lands and convert them to permanent protection and public ownership is critical to address the state’s growing water quality crisis and soil losses. That same conservation land can also benefit the state’s outdoor recreation economy, valued at approximately $8.7 billion in consumer spending by the Outdoor Industry Association. As has been demonstrated, it’s often river bottom or river corridor lands that are involved in such transactions. Restoring such lands to native vegetation and wildlife habitat provides immense benefits to Iowa’s rivers, streams, and water quality.