Government

New Iowa DNR director talks public land, water quality funding

'I'm proud to have an ag background,' Kayla Lyon says in one of her first media interviews

Iowa DNR director Kayla Lyon, photographed at Blue Strawberry in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa DNR director Kayla Lyon, photographed at Blue Strawberry in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Kayla Lyon expects conservation funding and state land acquisition practices to be debated in the 2020 legislative session — her first leading the state agency.

The director sat down this week with The Gazette for a brief, but wide-ranging interview in Cedar Rapids.

Lyon, who was appointed June 26 by the governor and who still must be confirmed by the Iowa Senate, has only recently scheduled public events and interviews after several months of private meetings with Iowa DNR staff, lawmakers and stakeholder groups.

“First and foremost is to get to know the department and to understand what we do,” Lyon said. “Most helpful has been meeting with staff. They know where the obstacles are and some of the challenges.”

Lyon, 35, of Ames, has spent the bulk of her career lobbying for agricultural interests, first with the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives and then for Gov. Kim Reynolds. Lyon grew up on a dairy farm in Winneshiek County.

“I’m proud to have an ag background,” she said. “Iowa is an agricultural state, but that doesn’t mean ag and natural resources can’t coexist. And they should.”

Conservation funding

Lyon anticipates such cooperation will be needed if the Iowa Legislature is going to fund Iowa’s Water & Land Legacy, a program created by voters in 2010 to improve water quality, protect soil, enhance wildlife habitat and increase outdoor recreation.

The three-eighths of a cent sales tax increase proposed to fund the program more popularly known as IWILL has never been authorized by the Legislature. And now some lawmakers want to change the funding formula to spend less money on buying land for public use.

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“We have been fielding some questions on IWILL, but really more in the realm of land acquisition,” Lyon said.

She noted Republican concerns earlier this year about private groups, such as the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, using the state revolving fund to purchase private land for conservation. That practice was greatly curtailed by Senate File 548, which Reynolds signed May 9.

Lyon has asked Iowa DNR staff to create criteria the department uses when purchasing land for conservation.

“We want legislators to see we have a transparent process,” she said.

The criteria, still in draft form, include working only with willing sellers and not competing for land buys at public auctions, she said. There is “heavy emphasis on water quality and the benefits of water quality but also, you know, habitat and making sure that we’re protecting species, among other things,” Lyon said.

Lyon declined to say how she feels about changing IWILL’s funding formula.

“Certainly our role in the department is to provide information through that process if they choose to go down that road,” she said. “But to dictate what the formula looks like, I think that’s up to the lawmakers.”

The Iowa DNR did not submit proposed legislation for 2020 to reauthorize the Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) program, which expires in 2021, Lyon said. The program, which got about $12.5 million in state money this year, pays for land management, city parks, historic preservation and soil and water enhancement, among other priorities.

“We did not propose legislation for REAP this year,” Lyon said. “However, I have had several conversations with the governor about how that does sunset and that we need to think about how we carry on. I think some of that will be driven by how IWILL goes, so if that advances, we could likely (have REAP) be a part of that conversation.”

voluntary practices

Environmental groups have been increasingly insistent that Iowa adopt requirements for farmers to implement conservation practices to reduce the flow of nitrate and phosphorus into public waters. New data from the University of Iowa shows Iowa’s stream nitrate loads doubled from 2003 to 2019.

Lyon said she supports voluntary measures, but is interested in Minnesota’s move to require farmers to leave a buffer between crops and waterways.

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“We know that buffers are a great practice when it comes to water quality so any tools we can put on the ground to impact water quality we should do,” she said. “I’m curious to see how the program comes to fruition in Minnesota.”

The Iowa DNR, with nearly 1,400 employees and an annual operations budget of $134 million, had been without a permanent leader for more than a year when Lyon was appointed, earning $129,000 a year.

She’s now filling gaps at the top of the organizational chart.

She made Ed Tormey the permanent Environmental Services Bureau chief and named Alex Moon her deputy director. Moon, who was former Land Quality Bureau chief and acting Water Quality Bureau director, takes over the No. 2 job from Bruce Trautman, who retired. Trautman served as the department’s acting director from May 1, 2018, when former Director Chuck Gipp retired, until Lyon was named.

The Iowa DNR posted the job opening for the Water Quality Bureau director earlier this week.

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

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