In 2010, Iowans voted overwhelmingly to amend the Iowa Constitution by creating a Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. The ballot language stated the Fund would be created for “purposes of protecting and enhancing water quality and natural areas in this State including parks, trails, and fish and wildlife habitat, and conserving agricultural soils in this State. Moneys in the fund shall be exclusively appropriated by law for these purposes.”
Hence, the trust fund is protected by the constitution for these purposes, and cannot be raided or redistributed in another manner. To assure Iowans realize the associated benefits of this spending, a distribution formula aligned with the constitution was enacted in the Code of Iowa. A promise was made to Iowans — the State would invest in a legacy of stewardship of its natural resources and opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Iowa no longer would be ranked near or at the bottom nationally in making these needed investments.
Sadly, more than eight years later, the promise has yet to be kept. Iowans are not seeing the benefits of their constitutionally protected Trust Fund. The reason: Iowa’s political leaders have not enacted the funding mechanism — a mere, fractional increase of the state sales tax by three-eighths of one cent. The trust fund exists, but sits empty. Surveys, including those conducted by the Des Moines Register, have shown public support, but political leaders have not acted.
So, benefits of cleaner water, protected soils, improved parks, and more enhanced places to hike, hunt, fish, bike, boat, picnic, watch wildlife, and relax and enjoy beauty in the outdoors are not being fully realized. Potential benefits of a funded trust with distribution as currently outlined in Iowa law are huge, and represent a legacy — a gift to ourselves and future generations.
Public Health Benefits
In Buchanan County, the Board of Health officially endorsed raising the sales tax to fund the trust fund. In its Policy Statement, the board states: “Today, nearly one in five children in Iowa is classified as obese. In addition, chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes, early on-set high blood pressure, metabolic syndromes, and even some cancers are popping up in our children at younger and younger ages in correlation to their unhealthy weights. But thanks to Iowans’ support of the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust, we have the opportunity to redirect the course of our children and provide a thriving environment that supports their health and well-being.”
• A child’s risk for obesity can increase by as much as 60 percent if they live in a neighborhood without parks, sidewalks, and other green space or recreational amenities.
• Children living in neighborhoods with easy access to outdoor recreation and green space have a higher likelihood of being physically active, achieve better grades in school, and require less disciplinary intervention.
• Nebraska reported a $3 return on investment in direct health cost savings for every $1 invested into trail infrastructure.
• Numerous studies prove that separation from nature is detrimental to one’s physical health and mental well-being.
Benefits to Rural Communities
Some Iowa communities have flourished in recent decades. Unfortunately, this growth and prosperity largely has occurred in ten, mostly populous, counties — the other 89 counties … not so much. This growth often has correlated with outdoor recreation investments such as trails and park amenities. Plus, these counties have other large amenities that attract employers and skilled workers.
Iowa’s rural towns do not have large stadiums, concert venues, and vast, bustling downtown night life. What they often do have are areas of natural beauty, and opportunities to enhance outdoor spaces and provide quality-of-life experiences. Parks, rivers, lakes, trails, and natural areas that provide wildlife habitat are key resources to make rural communities vibrant places where young adults want to work, live, and play. Both prospective employers and employees have called my park office in rural Buchanan County with the question, “If we relocate in the area, what is there to do?” They are interested in natural places and outdoor recreation amenities. Iowans voted to create the trust fund because they appreciate clean, healthy, scenic outdoor enjoyment.
Where investments have been made, they largely have paid off. The High Trestle Trail draws about 100,000 visitors and results in millions of dollars of economic activity annually. A main attraction is the unique High Trestle Bridge, located on the trail between the small communities of Woodward and Madrid, Iowa. The Charles City White Water Park boasts a million dollar annual economic impact for the town of 7,300. There are other examples scattered across the state. According to a National Recreation and Park Association and George Mason University study, Iowa’s local and regional parks account for about a billion dollars of economic activity, which breathes some life into rural communities. However, the vast potential benefits to communities are not being realized, and a woeful lack of funds to maintain green spaces and amenities jeopardizes what does exist. The trust fund would invest in rural Iowa like never before.
Iowans deserve a legacy of clean water. To date, no legislation has been enacted or proposed that would benefit water quality to the extent of funding the trust. More than $100 million is anticipated to be invested annually in ways that benefit water quality. Much of the investment will help private landowners implement conservation practices, but local communities also will have enhanced abilities to invest in water quality projects. Improvements to water quality and enhanced amenities will benefit Iowans’ uses of their 134 lakes and tens of thousands of miles of rivers and streams. Unlike the water quality legislation passed last year, trust fund dollars are constitutionally protected and cannot be diverted to purposes other than those listed in the constitution. The Trust Fund also requires annual reports and audits, so people are held accountable for how money is spent.
Citizens have spoken — repeatedly. They have amended the constitution, and surveys indicate about 70 percent of Iowans are in favor of the sales tax increase. Will Iowans finally reap their natural resources and outdoor recreation benefits that are included in the Iowa Constitution? This now is a question of political will. The Legislature and Governor must act to fully deliver on the wants and needs of its citizens. Will this be the generation of Iowans who leave a legacy of improved health, vibrant communities, and clean water and lands? The Legislature is in session. Let’s see.
• Dan Cohen of Independence is executive director of the Buchanan County Conservation Board and is a freelance writer.