Public lands bill stalls in the Iowa House

Sweeney, Fisher supported legislation faced public opposition

Canoers paddle the lake at Union Grove State Park near Gladbrook last July. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

Telegraph note: Following publication, the legislation referenced in this article cleared subcommittee and will soon be considered by the Iowa House Environmental Protection Committee. Refer to next week’s edition for an update.

Legislation that might limit the acquisition of new public lands — and was approved by the Iowa Senate on Tuesday — did not advance from a House subcommittee on Thursday amid significant public opposition.

Senate File 516 was tabled by an environmental protection subcommittee because only one of the three committee members thought it was ready for wider consideration.

“It was refreshing to see people there that were willing to listen to both sides of the argument, sort it out for themselves and figure out which way to vote rather than just putting the Farm Bureau’s stamp on it and moving on,” said Fred Long, president of the Iowa Conservation Alliance.

The bill would strip existing wording from Iowa law that directs state agencies to acquire and protect “open space” lands and to create recreational trails throughout the state. The bill would prioritize maintenance for existing public lands and trails over new acquisitions.

Rep. Dean Fisher.

Environmentalists, hunters, bicyclists and county leaders decried the bill’s perceived intent to limit new public areas in the state.

Rep. Dean Fisher, a Garwin Republican who led the subcommittee meeting and was the lone supporter for the bill, said it would merely insist on the “common sense practice of maintaining what we’ve got.”

“I don’t see this as limiting growth in trails and parks and public lands whatsoever,” he said.

The bill’s initial sponsor, Sen. Annette Sweeney, an Alden Republican who leads the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee, has also said her aim is not to restrict those acquisitions.

However, limiting public land acquisition is precisely why the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation supports it, according to one of its representatives. It is the only lobbyist group to declare support for the bill.

Annette Sweeney (R)

“Our members have set policy that the state of Iowa should concentrate on management of currently owned land and reduce the efforts to acquire more public land,” said Kevin Kuhle, state policy advisor for Farm Bureau. “Our members feel strongly about this issue.”

He said there is low-cost, less-desirable farmland and potential pasture land that could be sold to beginning farmers rather than sold to the state for public parks or wildlife areas.

Another bill last year proposed by Sweeney — which advanced from her committee but didn’t get a vote by the full Senate — would have limited the amount of money the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and counties could pay for land, and would have effectively penalized landowners who sold to the state or counties.

The true potential effects of the current bill are unclear, opponents said, because it is a vaguely written modification of current law.

“There’s some nebulous, subjective language on maintenance in there,” said Eric Goranson, who represents Iowa Pheasants Forever and the Iowa Bowhunter’s Association. “And we’re not quite sure why it was rewritten that way, unless it’s to set up for frivolous lawsuits or something else.”

Pete Hildreth, conservation and recreation division administrator for the DNR, said any notion that public land his department manages is not being well maintained is “not accurate.”

The bill ultimately failed to advance Thursday because Rep. Austin Baeth, D-Des Moines, outright opposed it — “This is a horrible bill,” he said — and because Rep. Helena Hayes, R-New Sharon, said it needs to be discussed further.

“There are some significant issues you guys have brought up that really, really do concern me, and I want to give you due diligence,” she said.

The bill had passed in the Senate with a 33-14 vote.