Taking a stand NE Iowans make their opinions known

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Hundreds showed up in Des Moines last week to share their opinions on a bill that would prevent state funds from being used for land acquisitions.
Hundreds showed up in Des Moines last week to share their opinions on a bill that would prevent state funds from being used for land acquisitions.

Dozens of Northeast Iowans were among the hundreds of conservation-minded people who last week descended on Des Moines to voice their disapproval of proposed changes to policies overseeing public land acquisition. Specifically, they were there to oppose two bills calling for changes in the way local conservation boards and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources acquire and use land.

Representatives from Allamakee, Winneshiek, Fayette and Clayton counties traveled together by bus to the Iowa State Capitol Building. According to Clayton County Conservation Board Director Jenna Pollock, who made the trip, there were comments from participants that the only time they get up that early is to go hunting or fishing or check on the cows calving.  
The two bills that motivated the trip were House File 542 and Senate Study Bill 1221.

House File 542 was introduced “as a bill referring to the acquisition of land by certain government entities.” The bill would eliminate access to a number of federal, state and local funding mechanisms for County Conservation Boards, City Councils, County Boards of Supervisors, and the State Department of Natural Resources. It also put restrictions on private landowners wishing to sell or donate their land to public entities.

“Iowa already has less public land than at least 47 other states,” said Elkader activist Larry Stone, who also made the trip. “(If the bill had passed) there would’ve been great losses to public recreation and to soil and water conservation, which are major benefits of public land.”

Supporters of the bill argued that farmers unfairly bid against conservation buyers like the Department of Natural Resources. But Stone doesn’t see that as a valid argument. “Most conservation land is not highly desirable for conventional agriculture,” he said.

House File 542 did not advance beyond the sub-committee level for lack of votes. The lawmakers on the subcommittee–Republicans Rob Bacon and Tom Jeneary and Democrat Scott Ourth–noted they had never received as many calls, emails, or contacts as they did on this legislation.

Senate Study Bill 1221 was introduced “as an act relating to the acquisition, donation, or sale of real property for specified purposes.” This bill would repeal the conservation tax incentive for private landowners selling or donating land to government entities (that particular language has been removed at this time). The bill would restrict public water works, pertaining to the acquisition of land for such measures. The bill would restrict private non-profits from accessing the state revolving loan fund.

Senate File 5 was introduced early in the year “as an act repealing the property tax exemption for Forest Reserve.” Said Pollock, “It became clear through correspondence with subcommittee members that their concern is property poor counties, like Allamakee and Clayton. We are unique in the amount of acres (almost 56,000) of untaxed lands incubating healthy forests. They seem to be attempting to freeze a property tax base, and eliminate the ability for public and private entities to acquire land for natural resource management which could reduce the amount of property taxes collected.” The bills incorporated language that aimed to recoup lost property taxes by eliminating funding mechanism for private and public entities.  

“The message that seemed to be relayed through the House and Senate proposals last week is that acquisition criteria for public land may need to be re-evaluated,” Pollock said. “Furthermore those bills send a message that previous legislation to incentivize land stewardship for private citizens no longer holds the value in the State Capitol that it once did, but that’s not the story Iowan’s are voicing.”

In addition to the hundreds of people who traveled to the Capitol, many legislators commented that they had received hundreds of calls and emails on these particular issues over the weekend leading to their discussion. Also mentioned was Iowa’s overwhelmingly approval in 2010 of the Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which dedicated the first 3/8 of a penny in sales tax increase to natural resource management. The Trust has not been funded because the sales tax has not been increased. That indicates to most that Iowans value their natural resource base, they value their public lands and waterways.

Northeast Iowans who made the trip were cautiously optimistic about their efforts.

“It was gratifying to see the outpouring of support for public lands but disappointing to realize that there is a segment of people who refuse to acknowledge how important public lands are to our state’s economy and to the quality of life or our residents and visitors,” Stone said.

Register Editor Pam Reinig, Clayton County Conservation Board Director Jenna Pollock and local activist Larry Stone contributed to this article.

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