Last time, I outlined some of the story behind the plight of Iowa State Parks, which, despite widespread popularity among the Iowanis, have faced a chronic lack of funding, staff cuts, and legislative efforts to stop the expansion of public lands in the state.
I now return to my conversations with Silvia Secchi at the University of Iowa and Kevin Mason at Waldorf University. I asked them not only about the origin of today’s challenges, but also what can be done to correct the problems faced.
Unlike the effort to establish a “Hawkeye National Forest” in the 1930s and 1940s, Mason believes that any effort today to expand the reach of public lands in Iowa should probably be done through state action, rather than the federal government. To that end, Mason noted that an important first step in better treatment of Iowa’s public lands, prior to any expansion talk, would simply be for the state to follow what it has already been nominally committed to.
Previously:Iowa has lost much of its scenic beauty by devoting too much land to agriculture
The 1988 Iowa Open Space Plan is based on House File 620, approved at the 72nd General Assembly the year before. By demanding that “a minimum of 10% of the land area of the state be included in some form of protection of public open spaces by the year 2000”, this goal was hardly achieved 22 years after the deadline.
As Chris Jones, a research engineer at the University of Iowa IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering notes, 10 percent of Iowa’s publicly protected area would be equivalent to 5,600 square miles; basically, Iowa has 1,576 square miles of public land, about half of which is a right-of-access road. Less than 600 square miles are reserved for state parks or wildlife management areas.
The Open Spaces Plan was created during Terry Branstad’s second term as governor; the 2010 election that would see him elected to his fifth term also saw Iowa voters approve by ballot, by a 63-37 margin (even in the midst of a recession), to change the state constitution and establish a Fund natural resources and outdoor recreation trustee in order to establish a permanent and sustainable source of funding for Iowa’s public lands. As approved, the trust fund would generate approximately $ 150 million annually through a ⅜th of a cent in sales tax, but nearly 12 years later no such tax was instituted and the trust fund has remained empty since its creation.
Although Branstad’s successor, Kim Reynolds, chaired a $ 1.24 billion budget surplus – the largest in state history – and expressed some support for financing state parks, it has basically remained silent. on following the will of the Iowa voters and Iowa’s written Code of Constitution through Trust Fund funding. Similarly, the Department of Natural Resources Resource Improvement and Protection Program is allowed to receive $ 20 million annually through 2026, but in practice it was earmarked by lawmakers to receive just $ 12 million, with another $ 500,000. from interests and sales of commemorative plaques.
Secchi’s ideas centered around equity, specifically the idea of who has better access to outdoor recreation space and who doesn’t. He believed that, ideally, the acquisition of public land, which would likely have a limited scope, should be carried out to reduce disparities in access to outdoor spaces, which can be seen in the disproportionately white composition of visitors to national parks, and economic barriers. such as the lack of transportation. Even in a self-dependent place like Iowa, census data suggests that more than 80,000 families don’t have access to a private car.
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Secchi also suggested that existing spaces could be used more effectively, for example by creating accessible programming for children. Something both Secchi and Mason would like to see is a conception of the value of land beyond monetizing the resources that can be extracted from it immediately. One way this could work in practice is to conduct an inventory of actual public land uses, which contains a fair amount of leased land for agriculture, an amount “three times larger than our largest state park (Yellow River Forest). Camp) “.
Something I have wondered about is a reformulation of the objectives, from strictly pitting public and private land ownership against each other to a more focused pursuit of public access to open space more generally.
I thought about introducing a “right to roam” in Iowa, which would allow people to hike, search for food, and camp on private land, while still prohibiting the destruction of property or large-scale economic activities by visitors (picking berries and setting up a tent would be fine, while cultivating a field and building a shed would not be.) Some iterations of a “right to roam” through privately owned land can be found throughout northern and central Europe, such as the Nordic countries, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and the state of Maine.
I think many Iowans, perhaps in deference to Midwestern modesty, accept the limitations of the state’s outdoor spaces today as an inevitable consequence of our relatively gentle geography. I am not nationalist enough to say that Iowa’s outdoor spaces will ever fully approach the spectacular views of Wyoming or Montana, however it is clear that the limits placed on public access to Iowa land are more constrained by social conventions than by geographical constraints. Expanding the reach and funding of Iowa’s public lands to legally written amounts would be a good start, as would support the staff who care for these lands (e.g. by asking the state to repair the homes of park rangers rather than evict them unceremoniously pinch pennies).
It would also be worth questioning and deconstructing the rigid separation in place between public and private territory, and wondering if some form of “right of exploration” could achieve the goal of opening up external space to all.
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Usually, this column ended after these political prescriptions; however, I think it would be worth looking back at the condition of the column so far. I have tried to ground my visions of a different Iowa (mostly one with multiple trains) in the historical context of the state, but in retrospect the sum of it all is somewhat a chimera: an assemblage of fragments, albeit real about them. , joining together to form something more ambitious than actually exists. The interurban railroads and tall grass prairies that graced this state are as real as a lion’s head or a goat’s body, but imagining the presence of both in the state today remains far from elusive.
Yet we must not let what is not, or what has yet to happen, overwrite what exists in our state. A Hawkeye National Forest failed to materialize, but from the New Deal project itself the limestone and wood shelters, synonymous with state parks, continue to benefit the Iowan to this day. I certainly didn’t fully appreciate the state parks and forests that exist in Iowa, especially beyond the eastern part of the state.
I am reminded of a gift I received a few years ago from a couple of friends who were dating at the time, a map of my hometown of Cedar Rapids from 1964. Their relationship didn’t last, but I still have the map.
On the back is a list of weekend road trip ideas in Eastern Iowa, one of which goes through Spillville, a small village near Decorah. The place is perhaps most noteworthy for one of its residents in 1893. The Czech Romantic-era composer Antonín Dvořák composed both his String Quartet No. 12 in F major than Symphony No. 9 in E minor, better known as “American” and “From the New World”, respectively, as he spent his summer that year in northeastern Iowa.
To my regret, I have not undertaken any of these trips, nor have I visited Spillville, despite my long-standing appreciation for Dvořák and his works.
Beyond the obvious geographical parallels, including the once strong presence of Czech immigrants in my hometown of Cedar Rapids, I’d like to think that Dvořák and I would have been able to bond on a mutual affinity for railways; his passion for trains was noted to be so profound that the cause of his death in 1904 was attributed to a “thrill” contracted during trainspotting in Prague.
I conclude here with two pieces of music to remember: a recording of a variation of the third movement of the “American Quartet” of the local group Red Cedar Chamber Music, as well as the opening lines of the ancient hymn of La ceca lands, “Kde domov můj – Where is my home? “
Austin Wu grew up in Cedar Rapids and is a graduate of the University of Iowa College of Public Health. In his spare time he has been interested in local history and urban design, and through this column he tries to imagine a better and tangible future in eastern Iowa, drawing inspiration from the principles of the past. He will appear on Press-Citizen twice a month. Follow him on Twitter, @theaustinwu.