Last time, I described some of the history behind the state of Iowa’s state parks, which, despite great popularity among Iowans, have faced a chronic lack of funding, staff cuts and legislative efforts to stop the expansion of public lands in the state.
I return now to my conversations with Silvia Secchi at the University of Iowa and Kevin Mason at Waldorf University. I asked them not only about the origins of today’s challenges, but also about what can be done to rectify the problems encountered.
Unlike efforts to establish a “Hawkeye National Forest” in the 1930s and 1940s, Mason believes that any effort today to expand the reach of public lands in Iowa should probably be done through state action. rather than the federal government. To that end, Mason noted that an important first step in better treating Iowa’s public lands, prior to any discussion of expansion, would simply be for the state to follow through on what has already been nominally committed. .
Previously:Iowa has lost much of its scenic beauty by devoting too much land to agriculture
The 1988 Iowa Open Space Plan finds its basis in House Docket 620, adopted at the 72nd General Assembly the previous year. Calling for “at least 10 percent of the state’s land area to be included in some form of public open space protection by the year 2000,” that goal has barely come close 22 years after the deadline.
As Chris Jones, a research engineer at the University of Iowa’s IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering, notes, 10% of Iowa’s area under public protection would equal 5,600 square miles; in practice, Iowa has 1,576 square miles of public land, about half of which is road allowances. Less than 600 square miles are set aside for state parks or wildlife management areas.
The open spaces plan was created during Terry Branstad’s second term as governor; the 2010 election that would see him elected to his fifth term also saw Iowa voters approve by vote, by a margin of 63 to 37 (also in the midst of a recession), to change the constitution of the State and to establish a Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in order to establish a permanent and sustainable source of funding for Iowa’s public lands. As approved, the trust fund would generate about $150 million a year from a ⅜ cent sales tax, but nearly 12 years later no such tax has been established and the fund trustee has remained empty since the time of its creation.
Even though Branstad’s successor, Kim Reynolds, presided over a $1.24 billion budget surplus — the largest in state history — and expressed some support for funding state parks, in practice, she remained silent on the will of Iowa voters and the written code of the Iowa Constitution by funding the Trust Fund. Similarly, the Department of Natural Resources’ Resource Enhancement and Protection Program is authorized to receive $20 million per year until 2026, but in practice the Legislative Assembly has only authorized $12 million. dollars receivable, with an additional $500,000 from interest and commemorative license plate sales.
Secchi’s ideas centered on equity, particularly around the notion of who has better access to outdoor recreational space and who does not. She felt that ideally the acquisition of public land, the scope of which is likely to be limited, should be done to reduce disparities in access to outdoor spaces, which can be seen in the disproportionately white composition of the visitors to national parks, and economic barriers such as lack of transportation. Even in a place as auto-dependent as Iowa, census data suggests more than 80,000 households lack access to a private car.
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Secchi also suggested that existing spaces could be used more effectively, for example by creating programs accessible to children. Something Secchi and Mason would like to see is a conception of land value beyond the monetization of the resources that can be extracted from it in the immediate future. This could work in practice by taking an inventory of the actual uses of public land, which contains a fair amount of leased land for agriculture, an amount “three times larger than our largest state park (Yellow River Forest Camp)”.
One thing I’ve wondered about is a reframing of goals, from strictly setting public and private land ownership against each other to a more focused pursuit of public access to open space more generally.
I thought of the introduction of a “right to roam” in Iowa, which would allow people to hike, forage and camp on private land, while prohibiting the destruction of property or large-scale economic activities by visitors (picking berries and setting up a tent would be OK, while plowing a field and building a shed would not be). Some iteration of a “roaming right” across private land can be found throughout northern and central Europe, such as in the Nordic countries, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and the state of Maine .
I think many Iowans, perhaps in deference to Midwestern modesty, accept the limits of the state’s outdoor spaces today as an inevitable consequence of our relatively mild geography. I’m not nationalistic enough to argue that Iowa’s outdoor spaces will ever fully come close to the spectacular views of Wyoming or Montana, but it’s clear that the limits placed on public access to Iowa land are more bound by social conventions than by geographical constraints. Expanding the reach and funding of Iowa’s public lands to the amounts enshrined in law would be a good start, as would supporting the staff who care for those lands (such as asking the state to repair the homes of park rangers rather than unceremoniously evicting them pinching pennies).
It would also be interesting to interrogate and deconstruct the strict separation in place between public and private lands, and to ask whether some form of “right to roam” could achieve the goal of opening up outdoor space. to all.
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Usually, this column would end after these policy prescriptions; however, I think it would be useful to review the state of the column so far. I have sought to ground my visions of a different Iowa (primarily one with more trains) in the historical context of the state, but in retrospect the sum of it all is somewhat of a chimera – an assemblage of pieces, though real on their own, coming together to form something more ambitious than actually existing. The intercity railroads and tallgrass prairies that graced this state are every bit as real as the head of a lion or the body of a goat, but imagining the presence of both in the state today remains elusive at best.
And yet, we should not let what hasn’t happened or what hasn’t happened yet overwhelm what exists in our state. A Hawkeye National Forest did not come to fruition, but under the same New Deal project, the limestone and timber shelters synonymous with state parks continue to benefit Iowans to this day. I certainly didn’t fully appreciate the state parks and forests that exist in Iowa, especially beyond the eastern part of the state.
I remember a gift I received a few years ago from a couple of friends who were dating at the time, a map of my hometown of Cedar Rapids from 1964. Their relationship never didn’t last, but I still have the card.
On the back is a list of weekend road trip ideas in eastern Iowa, one of which goes through Spillville, a small town near Decorah. The place is perhaps most notable for one of its residents in 1893. Czech Romantic-era composer Antonín Dvořák composed both his String Quartet No. 12 in F major and Symphony No. 9 in E minor — better known as “American” and “From the New World”, respectively — while spending his summer that year in northeast Iowa.
To my great regret, I did not undertake any of these trips, nor did I visit Spillville, even with my long-standing appreciation for Dvořák and his works.
Beyond the obvious geographic parallels, including the heavy presence of Czech immigrants in my hometown of Cedar Rapids, I’d like to think that Dvořák and I might have bonded through a mutual affinity for railroads; his passion for trains was noted to be so deep that his cause of death in 1904 was attributed to a “chill” contracted while trainspotting in Prague.
I conclude here with two passages of music to remind me of – a recording of a variation of the third movement of the “American Quartet” by the local group Red Cedar Chamber Music, as well as the opening lines of the long-standing anthem of the Czech Lands , “Kde domov můj – Where is my house?”
Austin Wu grew up in Cedar Rapids and graduated from the University of Iowa College of Public Health. In his spare time, he has been interested in local history and city planning and, through this column, seeks to imagine a better, tangible future in eastern Iowa by drawing on principles from the past. . It will appear in the Presse-Citoyen twice a month. Follow him on Twitter, @theaustinwu.