EDGEWOOD — In a tense meeting Monday night, people distressed by the recent elimination of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Forestry Bureau questioned state officials about the department’s future for nearly two hours.
More than 50 Iowa forestry advocates attended the public meeting in Edgewood. DNR Director Chuck Gipp and Deputy Director Bruce Trautman responded to audience questions about the eight DNR layoffs and breakup of the bureau intended to address a $1.2 million department budget cut.
Early in the evening, officials backed away from previous statements that the changes, which included eliminating Forestry Bureau Chief Paul Tauke’s job, wouldn’t affect DNR services.
Gipp said he was out of town when the layoffs were publicized last week, and a DNR spokesperson told several media outlets that the public wouldn’t notice any change in DNR services.
“We’ve got to quit telling people they won’t see a reduction in services because it’s going to give the idea that those (eliminated) positions weren’t necessary,” Gipp said. “Yes, it’s going to cause a reduction in services. ... Things will be slower.”
However, the quality of services won’t suffer, Trautman said.
Staff from the Forestry Bureau — which managed state forests and worked with stakeholders in urban and private forests — were not laid off but will be moved to the Parks Bureau, Wildlife Bureau or remain within the Conservation and Recreation Division of the department, a DNR spokesperson said last week.
Matt Lang, a master woodland manager, asked officials Monday to speak specifically about the fate of the DNR’s educational services.
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“I think one of the most important things the DNR does for us is educate us on how to manage our land ... and I want to make sure that won’t be changed,” he said.
Information-sharing resources won’t be affected by the layoffs, Gipp said.
Several attendees brought up a perceived lack of transparency in the process and wondered why the former Forestry Bureau chief wasn’t informed of the impending changes.
Iowa forest stakeholders should have been consulted, said Gary Beyer, a longtime forester and current forest consultant, adding that if Tauke was alerted to the layoff, he may have been able to find another way to save the money.
Gipp and Trautman emphasized several times that supervisors can’t discuss personnel matters with the public or other employees, and they thoroughly assessed all options before turning to layoffs.
“It was the hardest day of my life looking at Paul (Tauke) in the eye and telling him we were making these changes,” Trautman said.
The change was purely budget-driven, Gipp said, calling the department’s budget situation “desperate” after the Legislature de-appropriated $1.2 million from the DNR’s fiscal 2018 budget in response to state budget shortfalls.
Eliminating supervisor positions and dissolving the bureau meant the department would have the resources to continue paying foresters, who work to provide services, he said.
The state geologist, animal feed operator, magazine art director, a safety officer and AmeriCorps program manager also were let go. The partnership with AmeriCorps — a federal program that promotes volunteering — was terminated, as well as the DNR Trail Crew.
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The continuation of grant money essential to funding various DNR forestry programs and positions also was a concern at the meeting.
Beyer wondered whether Iowa still could be competitive in federal grant applications if the state no longer had a designated forestry bureau.
“We don’t know,” Trautman said. “All we know is we are going to do our best to compete.”
Shannon Ramsay, founder and CEO of Iowa advocacy group Trees Forever, received applause after asking Gipp and Trautman to keep “forestry” in the title of whatever agency the foresters work for. Trautman and Gipp said they are looking to comply with that request.
Others hope to put pressure on legislators to give the DNR sufficient funds in the future.
Former Iowa Rep. Roger Thomas called on advocates to get in touch with their legislators and educate them on forestry issues.
“Right now, I don’t think there’s any Iowa legislator (in state office) who cares about forestry,” he said.
At the end of the night, Ramsay said she’s concerned about what dissolving the Forestry Bureau could mean for Iowa’s woodlands.
“The trust levels (among the group) are low,” she said. “I’m still feeling a lot of loss.”
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