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Invest in Iowa's Great Outdoors

Des Moines Register

May 7, 2006

[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.]

It's Sunday. It's spring. If you're lucky, you're in Iowa while reading this. When you're done, get outside. Head to one of Iowa's 85 state parks, 1,600 county parks or the local bike trail. Take a stroll on the nearest sidewalk, head to a golf course, go fishing. There are warm-weather opportunities to enjoy.

Do it because it's healthy or it's nearly swimsuit season or it will help clear your head.

Then tonight, after you've enjoyed a day of fresh air, sit down and write a letter to your state lawmakers. Ask for more and better outdoor recreational opportunities. Even though Iowans rightly cherish what exists in this state, it's nothing compared to what residents of other states enjoy.

Iowa ranks 48th in per-capita spending for environmental and natural-resource endeavors, according to the Environmental Council of States. Only Kansas has a smaller percentage of public land, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Iowa has no national forests or protected federal wilderness, but it does have some of the filthiest waterways in the country.

Plus, this state does not provide steady and reliable funding for recreation the way some other states do.

That's not just embarrassing. It hurts Iowans and Iowa's economy.

Recreation is an investment. Recreational opportunities encourage active and healthful lifestyles, draw tourists, boost economic development and make people and businesses want to locate and stay here.

For the best way to make that investment, we need look no farther than our neighbors in Missouri.

This year, for the fourth time in 22 years, residents of Missouri will be asked on ballots whether they want to dedicate one-tenth of 1 percent of sales tax to parks and soil conservation. Voters said yes in 1984, and two-thirds of voters approved renewing the tax in 1988 and 1996. It's expected to pass again this year.

That's because voters know it's good for the state.

Half the dedicated money helps conserve soil and water resources by giving farmers and other landowners incentives to institute conservation practices. The money so far has funded more than 70 watershed projects. Missouri has decreased its erosion rates and saved more than 148 million tons of soil since this sales tax went into effect in 1984. It's an investment in the future because it helps keep agricultural lands productive and reduces water pollution. Iowa needs to do the same things to clean its waters.

The other half of the dedicated sales tax funds parks. Missouri has upgraded campgrounds, provided tour guides, repaired shelter houses and cabins, remodeled park lodges, stabilized historic structures, made public facilities accessible for the handicapped and extended the Katy Trail State Park.

Missouri's investment in recreation is reaping economic rewards.

A study conducted by the University of Missouri-Columbia for Missouri's Department of Natural Resources found visitors spent $410 million on trips to state parks and historic sites in 2002. "When this money is spent and re-spent in the economy, it brings the state park system's overall economic impact to $538 million," according to the DNR. It also supports more than 7,500 jobs.

Iowa needs a similar dedicated source of funds, and it should be statewide. A local-option sales tax could provide recreational funds for a single area, but those initiatives also foster a hodgepodge of trails that end where the money ends.

The state could use a whole lot more recreation everywhere, and a reliable source of revenue to pay for it.