Environmental groups endorse long-term Iowa water quality funding

'You can't do all things with limited funds,' Farm Bureau president says

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Environmental groups warmly welcomed the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation’s recent statement of support for long-term, dedicated state funding of water quality initiatives. But they said they will resist Farm Bureau’s efforts to exclude the acquisition of public land from the funding formula.

If elected officials approve a sales tax increase to fill the state’s empty Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, “the $180 million (anticipated annual proceeds) should be dedicated to water quality improvement and soil retention,” Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill said Tuesday.

“You can’t do all things with limited funds, and the sentiment of delegates (to the Iowa Farm Bureau’s recent policy conference) is that we need to target the funds to efforts that will yield the greatest water quality benefits,” Hill added.

Iowa Farm Bureau reported on its website that conference delegates concluded that “the funds should not be used to fund land acquisition and other expenditures that have little impact on water quality.”

Conservation practices on land in public ownership improves water quality at least to the same extent as practices on private land and does so permanently, said representatives of the more than 20-member organizations of the Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy Coalition, formed to promote passage and enactment of the trust fund.

Public land also provides the additional benefit of providing space for outdoor recreation and communion with nature, the coalition members said.

“We are unified on keeping the current funding formula,” which would allocate most of the fund’s proceeds to accomplishing the goals of the state’s nutrient-reduction strategy, said coalition co-chair Jan Glendening.

The Iowa Soybean Association, a member of the coalition, on Wednesday reiterated its support for funding the trust fund, and its chief executive officer, Kirk Leeds, co-chairman of the Land and Legacy Coalition, implicitly supported the funding formula. He stated that the trust fund “will enhance soil conservation, improve water quality, restore wildlife habitat and expand outdoor recreation.”

Despite the Farm Bureau’s public opposition, Iowa voters in 2010 approved by a 63 to 37 margin a constitutional amendment to create the dedicated trust fund, which has remained empty, awaiting enactment of a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase.

Momentum for the sales tax increase has mounted as public awareness of the state’s nutrient-polluted water has grown.

The trust fund spending formula, developed well in advance of the 2010 vote by stakeholders that include the DNR and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, would allocate 71.4 percent of the proceeds to programs that could be applied to best practices outlined in the state’s nutrient reduction strategy.

No specific percentage would be allocated for land purchases, which would be permissible expenditures, especially for the 7.2 percent earmarked for the state’s Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) program.

Opponents of public land often say it removes land from property tax rolls, placing additional burdens on the remaining local taxpayers, and that it deprives would-be farmers of the low-priced land they need to pursue their preferred occupation.

Neither argument holds much water, according to public land advocates.

“No one involved in public land acquisitions is looking to buy cornfields,” said Dennis Goemaat, deputy director of the Linn County Conservation Department. Most such purchases, he said, involve low-lying, frequently flooded land much more suitable for recreation and wildlife habitat than for agriculture.

“We are not on a path to a big land grab,” said Joe McGovern, president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which has been a partner in many of the state’s public land acquisitions.

Public land acquisitions, he said, are carefully targeted toward land with limited agricultural value but high potential for improving water quality.

“We would oppose any restrictions on the use of dollars (from the trust fund) for the purchase of public lands,” said Ralph Rosenberg, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council, a coalition member.

Matt O’Connor, habitat director for Pheasants Forever, another coalition member, said public lands are a “treasure that binds together Iowans from all walks of life.”

“The folks who buy hunting and fishing licenses have built the foundation of Iowa’s public land, and I hope they’ll stand up for their fair share of the benefits of a tax that all would pay,” he said.

The DNR manages 370,718 state-owned acres, which is about one percent of Iowa’s surface area. Of the 50 states, Iowa ranks 49th in the percentage of land in state and federal ownership, according to U.S. statistics.

That state-owned land includes 43,600 acres of sovereign land — essentially the land beneath state-owned waters.

Under a rule intended to reduce local property tax burdens, the DNR since 1990 has paid property tax on land acquired (in part or in whole) with funds from REAP and Wildlife Habitat Stamp proceeds, according to DNR REAP coordinator Tammie Krausman.

Since 1990, the DNR has acquired 128,300 acres and pays property tax on 74,775 acres — 58 percent of the post-1990 acquisitions.

Krausman said the REAP Open Spaces program acquires land from willing sellers at market prices and then pays property taxes on the acquired land. During fiscal year 2015, she said, the DNR paid $938,252 in property taxes, of which $503,576 was paid on land acquired through Open Spaces.

The decision to purchase land, she said, is based on several criteria, which include functional wildlife habitat, impact on water quality, management efficiency and landowner objectives.

Acquired land generally is not suitable for crop production, according to Krausman, who noted that 40 percent of DNR land is forested and 14 percent is covered by water.

The average corn suitability rating (CSR) of acquired land is 32.1. As a point of comparison, none of Iowa’s 99 counties has a weighted average CSR that low, and only three counties have a CSR lower than 40.

Krausman said 37 percent of DNR land is classified as highly erodible, and 17 percent is classified as hydric soil — soil saturated during all or part of a growing season, soil typically associated with wetlands.

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