Government

Iowa DNR goes year without permanent leader

That and other key vacancies concern environmentalists

Chuck Gipp, former director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources
Chuck Gipp, former director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources
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Thursday marks one year since the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has been without a permanent director, a lapse causing questions from environmental advocates about a lack of direction and advocacy for water quality and conservation efforts.

Chuck Gipp retired May 1, 2018, after leading the Iowa DNR since 2012.

The department with nearly 1,400 employees and an operations budget of $134 million has been led since last May by Acting Director Bruce Trautman. The state agency also lacks permanent hires for key posts, including heads of the Environmental Services Division and Water Quality Bureau.

“The Wallace Building is inhabited by knowledgeable and professional people who care about natural resources, but they do need a director to drive the bus,” Jennifer Terry, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council, said in reference to the Des Moines office building that houses the department.

The council is a Des Moines-based nonprofit that advocates for clean water, clean energy and land stewardship.

“What kind of a message is the governor and the Legislature sending Iowans?” Terry asked.

Gov. Kim Reynolds’s office has not responded to The Gazette’s questions about why she has not appointed a permanent director.

Iowa DNR spokesman Alex Murphy said the lack of a permanent director has not harmed the agency, which is charged with protecting wildlife, enforcing environmental laws and providing outdoor recreation venues for Iowans, among other duties.

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“The DNR has functioned equally well with an acting director and with the same mission and vision of protecting and enhancing Iowa’s natural resources that was in place with the previous permanent director,” he said in an email.

Although the Environmental Services Division and Water Quality Bureau also have acting leaders “we are patient and do not want to rush the selection process of a new director to ensure the most qualified candidate is chosen,” Murphy said.

President Donald Trump recently said he likes acting directors in his administration because they give him more flexibility. But governance experts say companies or agencies can drift without a permanent leader.

Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit focused on effective governance, compared an acting director to a substitute teacher.

“Formally, the substitute teacher has all the authority of the regular full-time teacher, but they’re not treated that way,” Stier told Vox for an April 11 story. “They’re not treated that way by people on the outside, their students, other teachers, and they don’t self-perceive that they have that same authority.”

The Iowa DNR, which gets about half its operations revenue from the federal government and fees, has seen state appropriations decline in recent years, with general fund support going from $15 million in fiscal 2014 to $13.9 million this year. In 2017, the Iowa DNR dissolved its Forestry Bureau and laid off eight employees to address a $1.2 million budget cut. However, the general fund money allocated to Iowa DNR operations will increase $366,000 next year.

Mike Schmidt, Environmental Council staff attorney, said budget cuts have forced the department to focus on required duties, such as enforcing environmental and recreational laws.

“Things that get cut are compliance assistance,” Schmidt said. “You want smart, efficient people at the DNR to answer questions, help get permits and turn things around quickly. Businesses end up in a worse place. They can’t get questions answered. They can only get questions answered when they do something wrong.”

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Besides naming a permeant Iowa DNR leader, Reynolds also faces nominating another director for the state Department of Administrative Services.

Reynolds had picked Janet Phipps Burkhead. But she will have to leave her post in May after the Iowa Senate adjourned last weekend without voting to confirm her nomination.

Senate Democrats indicated they had concerns about Phipps Burkhead, who served as the state’s chief negotiator during collective bargaining talks, according to The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources

• $134.3M operations budget in fiscal 2019

• 1,400 full- and part-time employees in fiscal 2018

• 425,000 acres of public land developed and managed by the agency including 245 lakes, 71 state parks and recreational areas and four state forests

• 14M park visitors

• 625,000 hunters and anglers served

• 1M wildlife enthusiasts served

Source: Iowa DNR, State Salary Book

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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