TREADING WATER

TREADING WATER: Iowa ag groups wield clout to stymie conservation land buys

Measures highlight political influence in a state dependent on farm economy

Jim Beeghly of Decorah climbs a hill to an observation tower April 18 along a recreation trail that runs through his land near Fayette. Jim and his wife, Nina, no longer live on the land and would like to sell the property to the Fayette County Conservation board so the entire property can enjoyed by the public. The couple opposed a bill state lawmakers were considering to limit the level of state help for private buyers of conservation lands. “The Legislature seems interested in interests other than conservation,” Beeghly said in an interview. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Jim Beeghly of Decorah climbs a hill to an observation tower April 18 along a recreation trail that runs through his land near Fayette. Jim and his wife, Nina, no longer live on the land and would like to sell the property to the Fayette County Conservation board so the entire property can enjoyed by the public. The couple opposed a bill state lawmakers were considering to limit the level of state help for private buyers of conservation lands. “The Legislature seems interested in interests other than conservation,” Beeghly said in an interview. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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FAYETTE — Before the March 4 sunrise, Jim and Nina Beeghly rose in the dark, put on their warmest clothes to brace for subzero temperatures and joined about 50 of their northeast Iowa neighbors on a bus ride to Des Moines.

They weren’t going to sight see or take in a musical at the Des Moines Civic Center.

The Beeghlys rode three hours to let lawmakers know a bill proposed by Iowa House Republicans and backed by the Iowa Farm Bureau would take away their ability to sell 120 acres of undulating hills, oak savanna and wetlands to the county so the land can be preserved for the public to enjoy.

“When I heard they were considering a law that would basically shut down our plan for our farm, we didn’t like that very well,” said Jim Beeghly, 77, of Decorah. “The Legislature seems interested in interests other than conservation.”

The Iowa Legislature last week approved a bill making it much harder — if not impossible — for private groups to use the state revolving fund to buy land that would later be sold to a public agency, such as the Iowa Department of Natural Resources or a county conservation board.

Groups like the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation can act quickly to purchase land desired for conservation and then sell it later to a government agency that wants it but isn’t as agile.

The bill is a stripped-down version of House File 542, which lawmakers scuttled after more than 300 people showed up March 4 to oppose it. That bill would have prevented public agencies from buying land or even accepting donated land unless a donor paid for upkeep. It also would have ended a popular tax credit for land donations.

The bills illustrate how political influence works in a state shaped by large-scale agriculture but facing major environmental challenges. While some conservation advocates are glad they didn’t lose more ground this session, one Republican lawmaker says it’s just the beginning.

Public vs. private

It started last year when Sen. Ken Rozenboom, an Oskaloosa farmer and Republican, dropped into the budget bill a yearlong moratorium on the state revolving fund, a program that provides low-interest loans for water and wastewater infrastructure projects.

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Rozenboom’s rider also required the Iowa DNR to inventory all properties purchased by a public entity with loans from the fund.

“I did that, for one, to call attention to the use of the state revolving fund for projects I believe are questionable,” Rozenboom told The Gazette.

Rozenboom is glad Iowa is ranked one of the lowest in the nation for the share of land owned by the public. He and other Republican lawmakers don’t want groups like the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation to be able to use low-interest loans from the state revolving fund to buy land that later becomes public.

“We’re a farming state,” Rozenboom said. “Compared to states that have other natural resources, mountains and deserts, that’s not who Iowa is. That 3 percent doesn’t mean a lot to me. It makes sense we’re relatively low.”

Iowa’s share of land owned by federal, state and local government ranges between 1 and 3 percent, depending whether government buildings are counted. An analysis by the National Resources Council of Maine in the early 2000s ranked Iowa at 49th in the nation with just over 1 percent of land owned by the federal or state government.

Unfair competition?

Only two groups registered support for HF 542: The Iowa Farm Bureau and the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association. They say nonprofits that buy land and later sell it to the state or counties make it harder for young farmers to buy their first parcels for corn, soybeans, cattle or hogs.

As early as 2016, Farm Bureau delegates included in a list of policy priorities ending tax breaks for Iowans who donate land to state, county or local government, according to a 2017 Des Moines Register article.

“Government incentives for donations eliminates opportunities for young farmers,” Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill told the Register. “A lot of our young farmers think it’s wrong.”

Hill declined The Gazette’s request for an interview until after the Legislative session.

For a group that touts its grass roots support, the Farm Bureau has not turned out actual farmers who aren’t lawmakers to speak about why the law should be changed. In fact, the only two people to speak in favor of HF 542 at the March 4 meeting were Farm Bureau lobbyists.

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David Trowbridge, president of the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, which represents “nearly 10,000 Iowa beef-producing families and associated companies,” told The Gazette his organization would “like to see land in Iowa remain in private hands.”

The Cattlemen’s group is concerned state and county governments don’t have enough money to maintain public lands, which could lead to eroded soil that doesn’t support livestock grazing.

Colby Holmes, 47, of Mount Ayr, in southwest Iowa, has a story he thinks underscores why changes are needed in Iowa’s public land laws.

Holmes, a Farm Bureau member who grows corn and soybeans and raises Angus cattle, recently planned to help his 19-year-old son buy some land in Ringgold County, he told The Gazette. There were two 76-acre tracts for sale at an estate auction in March, according to DreamDirt auction website.

The parcel Holmes preferred sold for $2,575 per acre, which still was too expensive for his son, he said. The other parcel brought $4,300 per acre.

“That piece over there was bid on by local neighbors, but they were ultimately outbid by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation,” Holmes said. He contends the higher sale price shows conservation purchases inflate the cost of farmland and pastureland over what local farmers can afford, he said.

The Natural Heritage Foundation disputes Holmes’s account, saying at least two other bidders wanted to buy the land at comparable prices and an independent appraisal showed the parcel was worth $4,300. The land is ideal for conservation because it’s never been plowed and is adjacent to the Kellerton Wildlife Management Area, Foundation President Joe McGovern said.

The state revolving fund was not used in making the purchase.

Best use of land

Since 2006, the state revolving fund has been used to purchase about 11,000 acres for about $52 million, an average of about $4,700 per acre, according to the Iowa DNR inventory. This is far less than the $7,264 per acre average Iowa farmland sold for from November 2017 to November 2018, according to the 2018 Iowa State University land value survey.

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“This is not prime farm land,” Patti Cale-Finnegan said of land purchased for conservation. She managed the revolving fund from 2004 to 2018. “It’s land that often has wetlands on it. A lot of times it’s next to wildlife management areas that have already been established.”

The Natural Heritage Foundation also has bought land in the flood plain, sold off by farmers tired of years of crops being ruined by flooded rivers and streams. Just this spring, western Iowa farms have sustained up to $2 billion in damage from the swollen Missouri River, the Iowa Farm Bureau reported.

That is one reason Silvia Secchi, a University of Iowa associate professor in geographical and sustainability studies, is frustrated about the new limits on the loan fund.

“Some farmers may say ‘For fair market value, I would be willing to sell my land,’” Secchi said. “That’s why this bill is so silly. It’s not like they are using eminent domain. You are taking that tool away from communities.”

‘We could always come back here’

Jim and Nina Beeghly bought their Fayette County farm in the early 2000s.

The retirees have spent more than $25,000 returning the land to its natural state by removing undergrowth and seeding native prairie plants, planting trees and shrubs and building five wetlands that now host animals including Canada geese, ducks, leopard frogs, chorus frogs and, on a recent visit, a snowy egret.

The couple has been aided by groups including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Fayette County and Pheasants Forever.

The Beeghly’s wetlands filter water from their neighbors’ corn and soybean fields. This is important because nitrate and phosphorus washing from farmland across the Midwest into the Mississippi River is causing an oxygen-deprived dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The nutrients also have caused harmful algal blooms in some of Iowa’s recreational lakes.

A 2.5-mile paved trail through the Beeghly farm takes cyclists, runners and walkers from Fayette to the banks of the Volga River. The couple granted an easement for the trail and for a lookout tower at the high point of the property.

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The Beeghlys offered to sell their farm to Fayette County at a discounted rate, taking advantage of the state tax credit on the donated portion. The county is applying for a state grant to buy the land, which would be used for educational programming.

Nina Beeghly said one of her grandsons cried when he learned his grandparents were moving from the farm to Decorah in 2014.

“I told him not to worry, that we could always come back here,” she said.

“If this deal goes through, that will always be the case,” added Rod Marlatt, Fayette County Conservation director.

Farm Bureau’s influence

Lawmakers don’t know or won’t say who wrote HF 542 and Senate File 548, which has passed both chambers and is awaiting Gov. Kim Reynolds’s signature.

Iowa DNR officials and the Natural Heritage Foundation think the bill likely would prohibit most of the ways the nonprofit now is using the fund to buy land for water quality projects.

Rep. David Sieck, a Glenwood farmer and Republican who sponsored the House bill, has not returned three voicemail messages or an email from The Gazette. He also did not respond to a request to see drafting notes for the bill.

Rozenboom, who introduced the Senate bill, declined to share his drafting notes but said Farm Bureau lobbyists made clear the organization’s priorities in terms of limiting public land purchases.

“They presented things to me and I took what I saw as the most obvious thing to work on right now,” he said. “That’s how it works. Everybody does that. Is it a Farm Bureau wish? Yeah. But it’s my wish.”

The Iowa Farm Bureau is a tax-exempt organization with $1.72 billion in assets, according to its most recent Form 990 tax report. The organization’s revenue for the year that ended Oct. 31, 2017, was $90.3 million, mostly from investments and income from Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company. Farm Bureau’s expenses that year were $31.7 million.

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The Farm Bureau paid 20 employees more than $100,000 in 2017, including President Hill, who received $590,460 in compensation and Don Petersen, director of government relations, who received $1.2 million.

The Iowa Farm Bureau contributed $291,700 to Iowa political candidates in 2018, with 94 percent going to Republicans, according to reports filed with the Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board. The biggest beneficiaries were Reynolds and Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig with $50,000 each, Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver with $14,500 and candidate Shannon Latham with $11,000.

Latham, co-owner and vice president of Latham Hi-Tech Seeds, was unsuccessful in unseating incumbent Democrat Amanda Ragan in the November election in north central Iowa.

The Democrat who got the most campaign cash from the Farm Bureau in 2018 was Kevin Kinney, an Oxford farmer and former Johnson County sheriff’s deputy, at $7,500. He defeated another farmer, Heather Hora, last fall for Senate District 39.

Kinney is the only Senate Democrat who voted for the public lands restriction bill.

“I probably got a little different perspective on it since I’m the only farmer on the Democratic side,” Kinney said. “I’m not saying what the land trust is doing is wrong. I just don’t think we should be funding a private entity to be going against the taxpayers.”

Kinney said he worked with Senate Republicans to keep the tax credit for land donations. He also pushed an amendment that said the revolving fund could grant loans to private groups if the land had been out of production for 10 years, but the amendment didn’t pass.

Last year, the Iowa Farm Bureau created Iowans for Agriculture, a 527 political organization it used to buy more than $200,000 in television ads in the Cedar Rapids/Dubuque/Waterloo market to promote Naig’s campaign for ag secretary, Iowa Starting Line reported in October. Naig, a former Monsanto lobbyist, is a Republican.

“Iowa farmers and agribusiness will benefit for years to come if this campaign is successful,” according to a fundraising memo obtained by Starting Line.

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The memo from Petersen lists water quality, soil conservation, value-added agriculture, livestock production and biotechnology as issues Naig could influence.

Iowans for Agriculture’s postelection report, posted Dec. 6 on the IRS website, lists $335,000 in payments to broadcast stations and Victory Enterprises, a Davenport-based communications firm that makes television commercials. The group paid another $50,000 in October to the Republican Governor’s Association “in support of efforts to bolster Gov. Reynolds election.”

Contributors to the fund include the Farm Bureau, Monsanto, Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Turkey Federation, Iowa Select Farms, Agribusiness Association of Iowa and Kent Corporation.

‘Probably isn’t the end of it’

Groups that go against the Farm Bureau’s legislative priorities face potential repercussions.

When Iowa Soybean Association Chief Executive Officer Kirk Leeds criticized a 2018 water quality funding bill supported by all the other agriculture groups, including the Farm Bureau, the Soybean Association lost $300,000 in state funding for farm demonstration projects.

Rep. Norlin Mommsen, a DeWitt farmer and Republican who chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, told The Gazette that Leeds’ statements factored into the cuts.

“I’m sure their opinion of the water quality bill played a part,” Mommsen said. But “it was more of not trying to play favorites.”

Conservationists fear this year’s public lands bills will be followed by more efforts to restrict public land buys.

Pheasants Forever has spent years advocating for a sales tax increase to fund Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, a program created in 2010 by referendum but not funded.

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Matt O’Connor, habitat team coordinator, said the Farm Bureau has falsely inflated how much money from that program could be used for land acquisition.

“Through their lobbyists, through legislators,” he said of how the group spread misinformation. “I want to have professionals and I want to have citizens of Iowa make decisions for Iowa, not politicians.”

Rozenboom said he’s not done looking at state conservation policy.

“Senate File 548 probably isn’t the end of it. I have a lot more things I want to look at.”

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

ABOUT These stories

Erin Jordan of The Gazette is researching and reporting on the progress — or lack of progress — in reducing the flow of nitrate and phosphorus into the Mississippi River and other lakes and rivers during a nine-month O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis.

Because Iowa’s state revolving fund provides low-interest loans for water quality and water infrastructure projects, Jordan spent the last four months investigating the politics behind bills to prohibit use of this fund by nonprofit groups, like the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, to buy land later sold to government agencies for conservation.

Jordan talked with eight current and former state lawmakers, a half-dozen Iowans who sent letters to legislators about the bills, agency leaders, conservationists, a commodity group and water quality experts to write these articles. She also reviewed more than 1,000 pages of emails from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Iowa State University about past water quality legislation.

Marquette University and administrators of the program played no role in the reporting, editing or presentation of this project.

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