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Iowa Must Step Up Investment in Public Lands

Dedicate reliable revenue stream to recreation

Editorial Board

Des Moines Register

June 1, 2005

"Public lands and resulting recreational opportunities stimulate economic development. Businesses are established. Property values increase. Vacationers come to visit."
[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

When it comes to offering public recreational areas, Iowa should follow the successful game plan of our southern neighbor.

More than 20 years ago, Missourians voted to dedicate a fraction of its sales tax - one-tenth of 1 percent - to conservation and parks. Missouri also dedicates one-eighth of 1 percent of sales-tax money for natural resources. Those dedicated revenue sources have meant millions of dollars for repairs, new trails and public-land purchases - amenities that make people want to visit and live in a state.

Iowa? Lawmakers talk about investing in recreation to create economic opportunities, but it's lip service. They don't stay committed to that investment.

Missouri has 2.7 million acres of public recreation lands, according to updated federal figures. Iowa? One-seventh of that.

This weekend, take a stroll around Gray's Lake in Des Moines. Or go rock climbing at Backbone State Park. Or find state land to hunt on.

You'll get to enjoy Iowa's landmarks and landscape. And you'll do it with a lot of other people.

That's because 14 million people visit Iowa's public lands each year. So there's lots of demand. Yet Iowa ranks 49th in percentage of land set aside for public use, according to a survey by the National Resources Council of Maine.

Only if you moved to Kansas would you have a lower percentage of public areas to enjoy.

But acquiring public land means the state has to pay for it , something Iowa lawmakers have been reluctant to do.

They start to do the right thing, then fail to follow through. In 1985, they established a park-user fee that was estimated to generate $1 million a year. Users gave them flak, and within a few years, they discontinued the fee. In 1989 they created REAP (Resource Enhancement And Protection). It originally was supposed to get $30 million a year, but rarely has received more than $12 million.

A study conducted by Iowa State University's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development documents Iowa's lost economic opportunities. It found that Iowans who live in counties with more outdoor opportunities enjoy faster-rising incomes than those who don't. The Mississippi River Trail, still under construction, is estimated to add $20 million per year to the state's economy. A study of the Wabash Trace Nature Trail in southeast Iowa found it adds $600,000 to the area's economy each year.

Public lands and resulting recreational opportunities stimulate economic development. Businesses are established. Property values increase. Vacationers come to visit.

Recreation areas also improve quality of life. More young adults will want not only to live in Iowa, but also to stay when they marry and raise kids - and maybe those kids will want to stay, too. More people will take part in physical activity, which contributes to healthier lives.

Like Missouri, Iowa needs a reliable source of revenue dedicated to recreation. It needs money for ongoing construction and upkeep. And it must have money set aside for purchases when desired tracts come up for sale.

Otherwise, mired in 49th place in availability of public lands, Iowa will continue to see other states offer more recreational opportunities - and watch economic opportunities here slip away.