Last time, I outlined some of the history behind the condition of Iowa’s state parks, which, in spite of broad popularity among Iowans, have been faced with a chronic lack of funding, staffing cuts and legislative efforts to halt the expansion of public lands in the state.
I return now to my conversations with Silvia Secchi at the University of Iowa and Kevin Mason at Waldorf University. I asked them not only about the origins of today’s challenges, but also what can be done to rectify the problems faced.
Unlike the effort to establish a “Hawkeye National Forest” in the 1930s and ’40s, Mason believes that any today efforts to expand the scope of public lands in Iowa would likely have to be done through state action, rather than the federal government. To this end, Mason noted an important first step in better treatment of Iowa’s public lands, before any talk of expansion, would merely be for the state to follow through with what has already been nominally committed to.
Previously:Iowa lost much of its scenic beauty by devoting too much land to agriculture
The 1988 Iowa Open Spaces Plan has its basis in House File 620, passed during the 72nd General Assembly the year before. Calling for “a minimum of 10% of the state’s land area be included under some form of public open space protection by the year 2000,” this goal has hardly been approximated 22 years past the deadline.
As Chris Jones, a research engineer at the University of Iowa’s IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering, notes, 10% of Iowa’s area under public protection would be equivalent to 5,600 square miles; in practice, Iowa has 1,576 square miles of public land, about half of which is road right of ways. Less than 600 square miles is set aside as 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 via ballot measure, by a 63-37 margin (also amid a recession), to amend the state constitution and establish a Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in order to establish a permanent and sustainable funding source for Iowa’s public lands. As approved, the trust fund would generate around $150 million annually through a ⅜th of a hundred sales tax, but nearly 12 years later no such tax has been established, and the trust fund has remained empty from the moment of its creation.
Even as Branstad’s successor, Kim Reynolds, has presided over a $1.24 billion budget surplus — the largest in state history — and expressed some support for state parks funding, in practice she has remained quiet about following the will of Iowa’s voters and the written code of Iowa’s Constitution through funding the Trust Fund. Similarly, the Department of Natural Resource’s Resource Enhancement and Protection program is authorized to receive $20 million annually until 2026, but in practice has been appropriated by the Legislature to receive only $12 million, with an extra $500,000 coming from interest and commemorative license plate sales.
Secchi’s ideas had a focus on equity, especially around the notion of who has better access to outdoor recreational space and who does not. She believed that, ideally, acquisition of public lands, which is likely to be likely to be limited in scope, should be made to reduce disparities in access to outdoor spaces, which can be seen in the disproportionately white composition of national parks visitors, and economic hurdles such as a lack of transportation. Even in a place as auto-dependent as Iowa, Census data suggests that well over 80,000 households do not have access to a private car.
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Secchi also suggested that existing spaces could be used more effectively, such as through the creation of accessible programming for children. Something both Secchi and Mason would like to see is a conception of land value beyond the monetization of resources that can be extracted from it in the immediate term. One way this could work in practice is by conducting an inventory of actual public land uses, which contains a fair amount of land leased out for farming, an amount “three times larger than our largest state park (Yellow River Forest Camp).”
Something I have wondered about is a reframing of goals, from setting public and private land ownership strictly against each other to a more focused pursuit of public access to open space more generally.
I have thought about the introduction of a “Right to Roam” in Iowa, which would allow people to hike, forage and camp on private land, while still prohibiting destruction of property or large-scale economic activity by visitors (picking berries and setting up a tent would be OK, while tilling a field and building a shed would not be). Some iteration of a “right to roam” through privately owned land can be found throughout northern and central Europe, such as in 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 limits of the state’s outdoor spaces today as an inevitable consequence of our relatively gentle geography. I am not enough of a nationalist to claim Iowa’s outdoor spaces will ever fully approximate the spectacular vistas in Wyoming or Montana, yet it is clear that the limits set on public access to Iowa’s land are more bound by social convention than geographic constraint. Expanding the scope and funding of Iowa’s public lands to the amounts written in law would be a good start, as would supporting the staff who take care of these lands (such as by having the state fix up park rangers’ houses rather than unceremoniously evicting them to pinch pennies).
It would also be worthwhile to interrogate and deconstruct the strict separation in place for public and private lands, and ask whether some form of a “right to roam” could achieve the goal of opening up outdoor space for everyone.
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Usually, this column would conclude after these policy prescriptions; however, I think it would be worthwhile to look back on the condition of the column so far. I have sought to ground my visions of a different Iowa (mostly one with more trains) in the historical context of the state, yet in retrospect the sum of it all is somewhat of a chimera — an assembly of bits and pieces, while real on their own, coming together to form something more aspirational than actually extant. The interurban railways and tallgrass prairie that used to grace this state are just as real as the head of a lion or the body of a goat, but to imagine the presence of both in the state today remains elusive at best.
And yet we should not let what has not, or what has yet to happen, overwrite what does exist in our state. A Hawkeye National Forest failed to come to fruition, but out of the same New Deal project the limestone and timber shelters together with the state parks continue to benefit Iowans to this day. I certainly have not fully appreciated the state parks and forests that do exist in Iowa, especially beyond the eastern part of the state.
I am reminded of a gift I received a few years back from a couple of friends who were dating at the time, a map of my hometown of Cedar Rapids from 1964. Their relationship did not last, but I still have the map.
On its reverse side is a listing of weekend road trip ideas throughout eastern Iowa, one of which passes through Spillville, a small village near Decorah. The place is perhaps most notable for one of its residents in 1893. The Czech Romantic-era composer Antonín Dvořák composed both his String Quartet No. 12 in F major and Symphony No. 9 in E minor — better known as the “American” and “From the New World,” respectively—while spending his summer that year in northeastern Iowa.
To my regret, I have not embarked on any of these trips, nor have I visited Spillville, even with my longstanding appreciation for Dvořák and his works.
Beyond the obvious geographic parallels, including the once-strong Czech immigrant presence in my hometown of Cedar Rapids, I would like to think that Dvořák and I would have been able to bond over a mutual affinity for railroads; his passion for trains has been noted to be so deep that his cause of death in 1904 has been attributed to a “chill” contracted while trainspotting in Prague.
I conclude here with two passages of music to reminisce on — a recording of a variation of the third movement of the “American Quartet” by the local group Red Cedar Chamber Music, as well as the opening lines to the long-standing anthem of the Czech 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 taken interest in local history and urban design, and through this column seeks to imagine a better tangible future in eastern Iowa by taking inspiration from principles of the past. It will appear in the Press-Citizen twice monthly. Follow him on Twitter, @theaustinwu.