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The future of Iowa's forests 'can go either way'

Former chief says now is time to invest, not cut budget

Former Department of Natural Resources Forestry Bureau Chief Paul Tauke (Supplied photo)
Former Department of Natural Resources Forestry Bureau Chief Paul Tauke (Supplied photo)
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Last month’s announcement by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources of layoffs and dissolution of the Forestry Bureau in response to a $1.2 million budget cut shocked some conservation advocacy groups and raised questions about the future of the state’s natural resources.

Iowa has four major state forests and six smaller ones, for a total of nearly 44,000 acres.

Under the budget cuts, state foresters were transferred to other divisions, but Forestry Bureau Chief Paul Tauke was laid off — the second time in his 18 on-and-off years with the agency.

He first joined the Iowa DNR as an assistant forester in Charles City in 1990. But he was laid off in 1991 when state budget issues led to the elimination of all assistant foresters.

He came back as a district forester in western Iowa in 1999 and was soon promoted to be a supervisor. In 2007, Tauke was named chief of the Forestry Bureau.

Now laid off again after a decade in that job, Tauke took time last week to speak to The Gazette about his interest in forestry, his current assessment of the state’s forests and his take on what challenges they face in the future.

Q: How did you get interested in forestry?

A: When I was a kid, we lived on a farm (in Dubuque County) that had about 100 acres of timber and pastured woodlands, so ... I’d wander around the timber and that sort of generated my interest in forestry. After high school, I spent a couple years in the Army, and then when I got out of the Army, I went to Iowa State ... and then graduated with a bachelor of science in forestry in 1988.

Q: What accomplishment at the Iowa DNR are you most proud of?

A: When I became state forester in 2007, at that time our four major state forests actually didn’t have any written management plans. So there was no real transparency with the public or with anybody. ... Once we had the plans, we actually got more work done on the forest because the purpose of the state forests is to showcase what good, professional management looks like to the public. By increasing our sustainable forest management, we’re also able to ... improve forest health, and as a side benefit we also saw some increase in revenue from our timber sales.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for Iowa’s forests in the next decade?

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A: Only about 20 percent of Iowa’s forests ... have active management plans. When you have a lack of management, invasive species can move in. Invasive species choke out the native forest floor population ... and they make it difficult to regenerate the forest, and all of the native forest floor plants, typically they get shaded out. ... As the forests deteriorate and become less structured from the forest floor up ... you’ll also get concern over water quality impact.

Q: What is the current state of Iowa’s forests?

A: I would describe the current state of Iowa’s forests as on the brink. I think it can go either way. With good outreach, good management and good care, I think we can do good things. (I’m not worried) so much about the loss of acres, although I think that’s always a big concern, but about the loss of quality and the presence of invasive species. If there was ever a time to focus on improving our woodlands and our forests, that time is now. I’m not going to say in 10 years it’ll be too late. I’m not going to make any doomsday predictions but ... the explosion of invasive species in the last 20 or 30 years, I think that’s a particularly large concern, and the only way you can address that is with good management. If you don’t have the boots on the ground to work with people, and if you don’t have good outreach to let people know there’s something they should be aware of, I don’t see how the situation can get much better. This is really a time, because of all those issues, to be investing more in Iowa’s forests, not less.

Q: What are your plans now?

A: I’m applying for positions both in forestry and not in forestry. I’m applying for positions in state and out of state, and we’ll see what happens. Obviously I love working in forestry … but also, we’d like to stay in Iowa. We have a family here, our grown children, and we have 2 additional grandchildren coming. … I guess I never thought being in forestry and staying Iowa would be mutually exclusive. Ideally, if I can work in forestry or in conservation, I’d love that.

l Comments: (319) 368-8542; rilyn.eischens@thegazette.com

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