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New DNR director with agricultural roots must prove herself to environmentalists

Kayla Lyon will finish getting her college degree this fall, officials said

Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Kayla Lyon. (Photo by Iowa DNR)
Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Kayla Lyon. (Photo by Iowa DNR)

Two weeks before Kayla Lyon was named director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, she had coffee with Chuck Gipp, who for six years led the agency in charge of protecting wildlife, enforcing environmental laws and providing outdoor recreation opportunities for Iowans.

Both are from Winneshiek County and both grew up on dairy farms — Lyon milking Holsteins on her parents’ farm near the Minnesota border and Gipp milking Brown Swiss cattle at his operation by Decorah.

Gipp met Lyon when he was a legislator and she was a lobbyist for the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives. He later worked with her when he was at the Iowa DNR and she was a policy liaison for Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Taking over the department, a state agency of 1,400 employees and an annual operations budget of $134 million, was a major leap. Lyon wanted to know if Gipp thought she could do it.

“She wanted my perspective, to know if as a 35-year-old woman she would be respected by senior management,” Gipp said. “She also wanted to know if a 35-year-old mother of two would have enough time ... whether it would consume her personal life.”

Gipp said he told her she could do it and, in fact, would be great at it if she listens to the department’s employees.

“That’s the key to being a director of any agency,” Gipp said. “You have to be amendable to the expertise they bring to a position.”

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Reynolds announced Lyon’s hire June 26, but so far Lyon has declined interview requests. Iowa DNR spokesman Alex Murphy told The Gazette Lyon would be busy “for the first few months” meeting employees and learning about the agency and would not have time to talk with reporters.

When The Gazette asked the governor’s office for Lyon’s application materials, including her resume, Deputy Legal Counsel Michael Boal said the office had no such records. Lyon’s LinkedIn profile was not available for viewing the day she was hired and her profile since has been removed from the social media site.

Interviews with those who know her reveal a new director who grew up rooted in Iowa’s rural life and who has been successful lobbying for agricultural interests. But some lawmakers and environmental groups raise questions about how effective an advocate Lyon will be for the state’s natural resources.

The Iowa Senate will vote early next year, after it convenes, whether to confirm Lyon’s appointment to the job.

Life on farm leads to promoting dairy

Lyon, whose maiden name was Kayla Hotvedt, grew up on her family’s dairy farm, a multifamily partnership incorporated with the Secretary of State in 1998. Foresight Farms was a 640-cow milking operation in November 2003, when Lyon was interviewed by the Post Bulletin, a Rochester, Minn., newspaper, after receiving her American FFA degree.

Dan and Sondra Hotvedt, Lyon’s parents, no longer own or operate Foresight Farms, spokesman Murphy said.

Lyon, a 2002 Decorah High School graduate, had just been crowned Iowa Dairy Princess and was traveling the state to promote the dairy industry, she told the newspaper in 2003.

“It keeps me very busy,” Lyon said. “Being dairy princess has been my dream since I was very young. The dairy industry is very important to me.”

Lyon enrolled at Iowa State University in fall 2002 and was majoring in agricultural communications. She was president of the Dairy Science Club in 2005-2006 and participated in the groundbreaking for the ISU Dairy Farm and Ag Discovery Center.

She was last enrolled at ISU in fall 2007, but did not earn a degree there, the university said.

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“Director Lyon needs to complete one class to earn her degree and she has re-enrolled earlier this summer at ISU to do so this fall,” Murphy said when The Gazette asked. “Director Lyon chose to focus on her career path, along with raising her family, but has recently decided it is an appropriate time for her to return to complete the one final course she needs to earn her degree.”

Lyon married Ted Lyon, a landscape designer whose family milks and breeds Jersey cows in Central Iowa. The couple has two daughters.

Lobbying for agriculture

After college, Lyon went to work for the Western Iowa Dairy Alliance in Orange City. The group was formed in 2007 to support Western Iowa dairy producers with public relations, leadership development and advocacy and issue management, according to the group’s website.

She stayed there until June 2009, when she took a job as director of government affairs for the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives, an Ames-based organization that represents industries including agriculture, credit unions, rural utilities, farm credit and petroleum.

“She was an outstanding employee. Very valued, very professional,” said Dave Holm, the institute’s executive director.

Lyon registered as a state lobbyist for the institute 2010 to 2013, 2014-2015 and 2016-2017.

In her final two-year term, Lyon declared her organization’s support for 17 bills, including a 10-cent gas tax increase and a biodiesel incentive extension — both of which became law.

Lyon declared against six bills, including one that would have allowed the sale of unpasteurized or ungraded milk for commercial animal feed and another that would have increased regulation on use of anhydrous ammonia, used as farm fertilizer. Both of those bills died. Lyon declared as undecided on 26 bills during that two-year assembly.

Holm said he was disappointed when Lyon left in January 2017 to join Reynolds’s staff, but he understood it was a good move for her. “She simply left for a career advancement opportunity,” he said.

Working for the governor

On the governor’s staff, Lyon served as a legislative liaison, or lobbyist, for agriculture and natural resources. She was paid $70,000 in fiscal 2018.

“Kayla oversaw DNR operations including regulatory permitting, conservation efforts, and wildlife issues,” Reynolds said in a June 26 statement. “She also played an instrumental role in the 2018 comprehensive water quality funding bill.”

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The Iowa Legislature in January 2018 passed Senate File 512, a bill providing $282 million over 12 years toward reducing harmful nutrients in Iowa’s lakes, rivers and streams. Critics say it’s not enough to make a dent in the multibillion dollar problem caused primarily by agricultural runoff.

In 2019, Lyon lobbied for Reynolds administration priorities of expanding broadband access to rural areas, creating a children’s mental health system and a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to felons, The Gazette reported July 8.

Gipp, who was Iowa DNR director from 2012 until his retirement in May 2018, reported on his agency to Lyon, who communicated with Reynolds. He liked that Lyon trusted agency leaders.

“Some in the political world, elected officials, will believe what constituents say without getting the rest of the story. She had the courtesy to call me for the rest of the story. That’s what is called for in the agency.”

Environmental concerns

Lyon is the first female Iowa DNR director and is paid nearly $129,000 a year. Pat Boddy, another woman, was interim director of the agency for five months in 2010.

Environmental groups and some lawmakers are worried Lyon doesn’t know enough about natural resources challenges and may be overly influenced by her agricultural roots.

“She needs to pivot from representing polluter interests and big ag interest to representing public interests.” said Pam Mackey Taylor, director of the Sierra Club’s Iowa chapter. “She’s going to be called on to protect air quality and water quality. I hope she’s going to be able to make that pivot.”

Iowa’s Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) funding is up for reauthorization in 2021, and Mackey Taylor wants to make sure Lyon pushes for the program that pays for city parks, state land management, county conservation and open space.

“If she’s not committed to that, we could have signification shortfalls in funding for natural resources,” she said.

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Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, who is ranking member on the Senate Natural Resources and Environment committee, said Lyon’s agricultural background raises concerns for him.

He believes Lyon’s appointment — coming 14 months after Gipp left the job — shows natural resources are not a priority for Reynolds.

“She (Lyon) needs to show she’s going to take environmental protection seriously,” he said. But “it doesn’t have to be a calamity if Kayla Lyon proceeds with some leadership and shows she will be very active in environmental issues.”

As Lyon gets up to speed, Bruce Trautman, who was interim director from May 2018 until July 8, is serving as deputy director, Murphy said.

Lyon has not yet filled two key posts, heads of the Environmental Services Division and Water Quality Bureau, he said.

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

About the 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

• 13.8M park visitors in 2018

• 625,000 hunters and anglers served in 2018

• 1M wildlife enthusiasts served in 2018

Source: Iowa DNR, State Salary Book

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