Staff Columnist

New Iowa DNR chief can't fix lack of leadership at the top

Kayla Lyon
Kayla Lyon

After the Iowa Department of Natural Resources went 14 months without a permanent, appointed director, Kayla Lyon takes over Monday.

Three years ago, Lyon was a lobbyist for the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives, a group that represents agricultural cooperatives, credit unions, utilities, health care co-ops, etc. She joined then-Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration as an agriculture and natural resources policy adviser, a role she continued to play for Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Most recently, she was Reynolds’ legislative liaison, also known as a lobbyist.

According to declarations compiled by the Legislature, Lyon lobbied on several Reynolds administration priorities during the 2019 session.

There was the “Empower Rural Iowa” initiative, aimed at addressing broadband access, housing and other pressing development issues. Lyon lobbied lawmakers on the creation of a children’s mental health system and a state constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to felons.

Lyon advocated for Reynolds’ plan to offer birth control pills over the counter; pursued an effort to change the way Iowa picks its judges, giving Republicans more power in the process; and urged lawmakers to boost funding for Future Ready Iowa.

There’s some good legislation on that list, and some not-so-good. But you may have noticed that none of the governor’s 2019 priorities included protecting or enhancing natural resources, encouraging conservation or protecting the environment.

That’s because those sorts of issues are not really priorities of this administration. Instead, it takes cues on the environment largely from agricultural and agribusiness interests, a list topped by the Iowa Farm Bureau. The campaign donations also are nice.

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Lyon’s appointment fits that model, although we don’t yet know exactly what sort of Iowa DNR director she’ll be. She hasn’t even started.

But we do know, even if we could put John Muir, Aldo Leopold or Rachel Carson in that chair, if the governor an Iowa DNR director serves isn’t all that interested in addressing environmental challenges, the sorry status quo will hold firm. Appointing a director at long last is swell. But the real problem is a lack of leadership at the top.

It’s true, the first bill Reynolds signed as governor in 2018 was a water quality measure spending $282 million over 12 years on various efforts led by the Iowa Department of Agriculture. A news release announcing Lyon’s appointment said she “played an instrumental role” in passing it.

You might recall the bill, Senate File 512, was introduced in 2017, passed the GOP Senate but failed in the Republican-controlled House, where a more robust bill had bipartisan backing.

In between the 2017 and 2018 sessions, former Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and others lobbied behind the scenes for the weaker Senate bill, which was supported by the Farm Bureau and other producer groups.

It was opposed by just about every organization in Iowa that truly cares about clean water.

The Senate bill spends money and that’s about it. There are no mandated measures or benchmarks to tell us if that money is actually making water cleaner. It sets out no timelines or solid goals. It counts projects, but not results.

And it wasn’t just environmentalists who realized the fix was in for a bad bill.

“I don’t know about all of you, but I did not come down here to check a box,” said then-state Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, who sponsored the House bill, which would have directed funding to collaborative projects at the watershed level, along with monitoring. “Just because the words ‘water quality’ are in the title does not make me proud to vote for it so I can put it on a postcard when I go campaign.”

But Reynolds and Northey’s lobbying won the day. The governor, with Lyon’s help, would get a water quality bill to sign, and a political victory in an election year.

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The Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund created by voters in 2010 continues to sit empty.

So, for those of you keeping score, the chronically underfunded Iowa DNR has a new director with an agribusiness background. The Environmental Protection Commission, which guides the agency’s regulatory powers, is dominated by farmers and others with agribusiness ties. Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig, a former Monsanto lobbyist who runs the agriculture department, won election last fall with the help of a late push by the Farm Bureau and its allies. He thinks SF 512 is dandy.

And at the top is a governor whose proudest environmental achievement is a bill she didn’t have a hand in writing, a measure borrowed from the Senate GOP and its ag allies.

When she signed SF 512, the governor said the water quality conversation would continue. But she is determined to hear only from one side.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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