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Where's the Fun? Iowa Ranks Near Bottom in Public Land for Recreation

Perry Beeman and Juli Probasco-Sowers

Des Moines Register

May 29, 2005

[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.]

Iowa has less public land for outdoor recreation than all but one other state, by one count.

Those fun spots cover 2 percent of Iowa, while row crops and other farm uses account for 91 percent. Only Kansas had a smaller percentage of land in public areas in a survey of state and federal holdings by the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

"It's excruciatingly embarrassing," said Donna Buell of Wahpeton in the Iowa Great Lakes region, a governor-appointed member of a state environmental commission. "We could at least be in the middle of the pack. I think Iowans would pay for more."

Iowa has no national forests, no major national park, no protected federal wilderness. In addition, Iowa spends less per person on parks than all but three other states.

Recreation has economic implications. It is a key to attracting and keeping residents and vacationers. Many state leaders agree on that; in fact, years ago lawmakers set a goal to have 10 percent of Iowa in publicly controlled lands.

It's the price tag that's the problem. It would cost at least $1 billion to add the 1.7 million acres needed to push Iowa to the middle of national rankings. That figure is based on the average price the state has paid to buy marginal farmland from willing sellers in one major program. By comparison, Iowa's entire annual state budget is under $5 billion.

With 85 state parks, 1,600 county parks and hundreds of city parks, most residents live close to some kind of place to play outdoors. But Iowans would have to search hard to find a wild area large enough for a weekend of backpacking, for example.

The issue isn't just a matter of Iowa scoring poorly in a national ranking. Some authorities say a lack of public recreation land contributes to Iowa's lagging population growth.

"That would be one of the factors explaining the slow growth in Iowa," said John Miranowski, an economics professor at Iowa State University. In a study of Midwestern counties, Miranowski found that counties with better recreation also have faster-growing incomes. The more recreation in a four-county area, the stronger the growth.

If Iowa improved its recreation offerings, its population would grow more, Miranowski said. The financial strength of parts of Iowa with good lakes, federal reservoirs, local and state parks, and trails on abandoned rail lines would spread.

Why? John Crompton, a professor at Texas A&M University, has an explanation.

Crompton, who has surveyed business owners and held dozens of seminars all over the country, said that when he asks people to tell him where they want to live - without giving any regard to job or other factors - more than 80 percent pick a place with great outdoor recreation.

How to fix it: Public land proposals
Iowa can't change its geography. However, it can create large outdoor playgrounds. The catch is typically financial. The state's natural resources department gets a fraction of 1 percent of state taxes. Here are some proposals for gaining cash for public lands.
Use an existing environmental fund. Lawmakers annually allocate money to the Resource Protection and Enhancement Program, an environmental fund that originally was supposed to get $30 million a year. It has rarely received more than $12 million, and now has a limit of $20 million. Two years ago, it received $2 million.
Reinstate park-user fees. Iowa instituted the fees briefly in the late 1980s, raising $1 million to $1.5 million a year. Visitors voluntarily paid $2 per visit or $10 per year.
Earmark part of state sales tax money.
Increase the sales tax. Missouri residents voted for a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax that raises $31 million a year for park projects.
Use fishing tournament fees. Permits are required for many fishing tournaments, but there's no fee in Iowa. There's talk of charging for at least the largest tournaments. In Missouri, anglers sometimes pay $25 a day plus a $5 boat-ramp fee.
 "These things have clear bottom-line implications on where people live and on profitability," Crompton said.

Quality of life

Camille Wilson, now 26, grew up in the Des Moines area and graduated from the University of Iowa in December 2001. Six months later, she moved to the Denver suburb of Littleton, longing for wide open, diverse natural spaces.

"The key thing that draws people away from Iowa is the attractiveness of the active, outdoor culture" in other states, said Wilson, who graduated from West Des Moines' Valley High School. "It's part of the lifestyle here (in Colorado) to ski, hike and bike. It's assumed you do those things if you don't say otherwise. In Iowa, if you do them, it's considered unusual."

When she lived in Iowa, Wilson loved to visit Backbone State Park and much of northeast Iowa, but that took a long drive. In Colorado, she has a city trail in her neighborhood, and big, ecologically diverse county parks a few miles away. "Sure, you can hike in Browns Woods and go to northeast Iowa, but the variety isn't there," Wilson said of Iowa.

David Peterson, 27, a 1996 graduate of Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, just finished a graduate degree in urban planning at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He's heading west.

"I think that there is a pretty small pocket of things you can do involving public lands in the state," said Peterson, who is job-hunting.

Clive resident Jane Clark, who is active in the Audubon Society, said more than economic vitality is at stake.

"People are beginning to realize how much these areas add to our quality of life," said Clark. "It has to do with restoring yourself, re-creating yourself through that opportunity of seeing yourself and the world through fresh eyes. . . . If we had more of those, we wouldn't have to go to the mountains or the ocean, but we don't have enough of those places."

Barbara Tagami is the naturalist for Dickinson County, home to the Iowa Great Lakes and the only rural Iowa county among Iowa's fastest-growing areas. She said the state needs to lure visitors with natural resources.

"Iowa could do better," Tagami said. "What needs to happen is a changed mind-set of how important this is to Iowa. I would like to see more public ground that would connect throughout the state."

Iowa may never have a park the size of Yellowstone, but it already has the 7,000-acre Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt in Polk County, the 5,000-acre Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City, and the 2,000-acre Louisa Division of the Mark Twain National Wildlife Refuge along the Mississippi River.

Those and other larger parks - Backbone and Ledges state parks, for example - are regularly packed with summertime campers.

Political challenge

Gov. Tom Vilsack and other Iowa leaders have said improving outdoor recreation is one way to get people to move to Iowa, and to keep people here. However, Vilsack has been largely unsuccessful in pushing legislators to regularly allocate more money for park purchases.

The governor said spending money to create more outdoor recreation is a political challenge in a state in which education, the economy and other issues have been more urgent to legislators than places to picnic, kayak, or watch eagles. "I don't sense any interest in raising taxes," Vilsack said.

State's successes

Iowa may have less land for outdoor recreation than most other states, but some Iowa groups have been working to change that.


In 25 years, the foundation has assembled 81,846 acres, in many cases adding to state parks, said spokeswoman Cathy Engstrom.

Of that, 9,300 acres are private lands that owners have agreed to protect. Much of the land is Mississippi River bluff land and other pristine areas that Iowans can see from rivers or nearby roads and trails.

The foundation also has played a key role in expanding bicycle and walking trails throughout the state. After helping create the 52-mile Cedar Valley Nature Trail from Cedar Rapids to Waterloo and the 26-mile Heritage Trail from Dyersville to Dubuque in the 1980s, the foundation promoted conversions of several other abandoned Iowa rail lines to trails.

In the Loess Hills, the foundation helped turn a former YMCA camp once considered for a landfill into Hitchcock Nature Area, one of the few public accesses to the spectacular hills.

The foundation also assisted with the creation of Mines of Spain, which boasts 1,300 acres of woods and 3.5 miles of Mississippi River bluff lands. It's a key preservation site that contains explorer Julien Dubuque's grave and historic Spanish lead mines. The group helped arrange $3 million in financing and persuaded a landowner to take advantage of the tax benefits of a sale. The group also worked for 20 years to add 1,045 acres to Effigy Mounds National Monument in Allamakee County in northeastern Iowa.


This private, nonprofit group has acquired 9,000 acres to preserve habitat, much of it in the Loess Hills of western Iowa. Some of that land is off limits to the public.


The state agency doubled the size of Cayler Prairie west of the Iowa Great Lakes.

Using an environmental fund created by legislators in the late 1980s, the state agency has purchased 30,500 acres for $19.1 million in spots scattered across the state. Elinor Bedell State Park along East Okoboji Lake is one example. Altogether, the department has added 105,000 acres since 1985, which is about one-seventh of all public recreation land.


Polk County's conservation commission has added hundreds of acres to Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt, which stretches 10 miles along the Skunk River.


In a model of cooperation between governments and private groups, various groups and agencies have bought thousands of acres around the popular Okoboji lake chain. Adding the land filters pollution before it gets to the lakes, preserves important wildlife habitat and provides public areas for hiking, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, bird-watching and hunting.

In Clear Lake, private organizations and government agencies banded together to buy key land for recreation, and private groups helped acquire 768 acres for the 63-mile Wabash Trace trail out of Council Bluffs.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bought 5,000 acres of farmland, prairie and savannah to create the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City. The agency hopes the refuge - which features trails, a bison herd and a large visitor center - will grow to 8,600 acres.

- Perry Beeman

 State Sen. Hubert Houser, a Carson Republican, said he doubts the public would back a tax increase for public lands. However, he supports a park-user fee.

Houser added that lawmakers have supported specific projects to add recreation areas, including a $1.5 million appropriation this year to expand Waubonsie State Park in the Loess Hills near Hamburg.

A University of Northern Iowa survey several years ago found that less than half of Iowans supported raising sales, income or property taxes to "protect and manage" natural resources.

However, strong majorities of those surveyed supported using lottery money and existing tax collections, or increasing hunting and fishing fees, park entrance fees or cigarette or liquor taxes.

Right now, the state's resources and agriculture departments together spend less than 1 percent of the state's general operating budget.

Economist Thomas Power of the University of Montana at Missoula said Iowa would do well to promote what recreation it has and to restore some of its lost prairie and oak savannah. Power analyzed U.S. Department of Agriculture data that show the healthiest areas in the country are those that offer good outdoor recreation and a diverse, interesting landscape.

Ways to pay

What's tough is getting the money. "This state doesn't much care about natural resources," said Mark Slatterly, a budget officer for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The state spends $16 million in taxes on natural resources each year, "and we fight over that every time," he said.

Outdoor groups want a predictable, dedicated flow of cash so they don't have to go begging every year. One proposal, backed by Rep. John Whitaker, a Hillsboro Democrat, would earmark 2 percent of the state's sales taxes and license fees - about $35 million a year - for hunting, parks and trails projects.

Ron Kuntz, an outdoorsman, has collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition asking that a sliver of sales tax receipts be used to add recreational land, even if it's around $5 million to $10 million a year.

Don Brazelton of the Iowa Association of County Conservation Boards said the popularity of recently built lakes such as Lake Belva Deer in Keokuk County and Three Mile Lake in Union County show the importance of that cash.

Kayaker and author Nate Hoogeveen of Des Moines said Iowa officials seem to be in no hurry to add more recreational land.

Hoogeveen said paddlers have trouble getting to Iowa's rivers because of a shortage of public ramps. Gains are at a plodding pace.

"The pace of this is infuriatingly slow. I think we are in danger of losing our youth," said Hoogeveen, 31.

Richard Bishop, retired state wildlife chief, pushed hard while he worked for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to boost Iowa's inventory of natural lands.

"We need to look at our growing urban population," Bishop said. "The public is clamoring for places to go and things to do outside."

Bowhunter Randy Taylor of Reasnor said he was surprised when the state scrapped a user fee for parks in the late 1980s because it wasn't popular. He pays fees in South Dakota, Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin. He wants Iowa's reinstated.

However, Iowa's short-lived park entrance fees raised only $1 million a year.

Using sales tax money is another option. Missouri has used a fraction of a 1 percent sales tax to boost outdoor recreation for years, pulling in $32 million annually for parks. Wisconsin and Minnesota have considered the idea.

The Iowa Association of County Conservation Boards favors a steady stream of money for recreational land, even if it means a slight boost in sales taxes, said Brazelton, the group's executive secretary.

Laverne Woock, owner of Delta Industries in Reinbeck and a leader in the Iowa Bowhunters Association, said it could take up to six years to persuade lawmakers to approve a sales-tax measure.

Iowa is an agricultural power, and many residents don't want farmland - even if it isn't good corn ground - converted to public playlands.

Elizabeth Garst of Coon Rapids, who with her family is turning a family-run farm resort into a nonprofit retreat and research center called Whiterock Conservancy, said Iowans should be able to make a living from farming, while also preserving land for outdoor activities.

"How can Iowa land be managed in ways that are environmentally feasible and economically feasible?" asked Garst, a member of the Iowa Natural Resources Commission.

"Right now, we know how to make money on corn and soybeans, and that's about it," she said.

To some, the question is not whether Iowa can afford to improve recreation. It is whether the state can afford not to offer more.

"The future of Iowa has to incorporate recreation," said Bishop, the former state wildlife chief.

"It's not the only thing, but it's important," he added.

Outdoors online

Find guides to state and federal areas in Iowa:

National Park Servicemonuments

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuges

Iowa Department of Natural Resources parks

Other state recreation areas and preserves

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Iowa Whitewater Coalition

Iowa Outdoor Unlimited (IOU)

Central Iowa Paddlers

Iowa Department of Transportation trails map

Central Iowa Trails Association (CITA)