Rocky trail ahead for state parks

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Once again, our Legislature is cutting funding to our public lands, state parks and forests. History might help us understand where this leads.

During the Great Depression, economic collapse was threatening us all. Along with abnormal climate change due to overnight destruction of the natural environment came a growing divide between the few rich and the many poor. In Iowa, by 1930, we had plowed, clear-cut and developed roughly 95 percent.

So much was changed for private use that Iowa decided to take a different path. By 1937, we led the nation in establishing state parks. We put people to work healing the landscape. It was called the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Recently cut AmeriCorps was in that same model, using temporary workers to do basic maintenance for many positions cut in preceding years.

AmeriCorps pays its workers below minimum wage but provides a small, additional educational bonus that can be used only to pay school loans or for enrollment in a trade school or college. As trails coordinator for the DNR for 30 years, I have worked with hundreds of AmeriCorps members. Most went on or back to school. Many have gone on to leadership positions. Some even remained in Iowa.

AmeriCorps and federal and state trail grants brought millions of additional dollars into the DNR budget. Over 30 years I would estimate that for every DNR dollar spent, we brought in at least three more.

We originally focused on repairing unsafe trails, eroded over 6 feet deep or more. The program rapidly expanded into restoring CCC structures, ecosystem restoration, establishing the Water Trails program and developing interpretation services for the first time in 70 years.

Today, Iowa competes for the very bottom in state parks and public lands. We are known as the most biologically altered state in North America. Roughly 98 percent of Iowa has been altered for agricultural use, cities and roads. All our state parks and forests have been logged and heavily grazed. We still fail to realize that these areas are healing landscapes.

We have no old-growth forests left. We have less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the prairies which covered our state and produced our rich soils. Only 10 percent of Iowa’s remaining prairies and forests lie within the public domain and its limited protection. This makes these parks very, very special not only for people, but for the dwindling plants, animals and wildlife.

Today, all 87 postage-stamp state parks combined total about 56,000 acres out of Iowa’s 36 million. This is a square just over 9 miles on a side. For reference, the city of Des Moines covers 71,000 acres, a square about 10.5 miles on a side. Less than two-tenths of 1 percent is designated and protected as state parks. Almost all parks can be walked across in an hour, and you are rarely more than a mile from a road.

We continue to make bad choices as farmers converted roughly the size of our state parks or around 50,000 acres of grassland, scrub- land and wetlands from 2008 to 2011. Urban sprawl has increased 50,000 acres in the last 10 years. We have now covered 23.6 million acres, about two-thirds of the state, in just two species — corn and soybeans.

This year in the DNR, “heads and beds” are used to determine which parks to let go. With each administration change and continuing cuts, we are forced to re-evaluate the worth of these areas. What kind of state do you want to live in?

If the parks’ future depends on the few who control the money or vote, it will be decided by politicians and profit, not posterity. What if everyone and every being voted? I think the trees, flowers, bugs and birds will win and vote everyone out of office, save the parks and our children’s’ future.

• Mark S. Edwards of Boone worked for the Iowa Conservation Commission and retired as trails coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources

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