As part of a very large government efficiency bill currently under consideration, the Iowa House of Representatives is considering legislation that would require the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to sell farmable land it owns and restrict future purchases of public lands.
These proposals got our attention because we know Iowa ranks nearly last in the nation in public land ownership (49/50). In a state dominated by corn and soybean production, publicly owned land is essential to providing habitat and food for wildlife, among other ecosystem services. So we wanted to look deeper and find out what’s going on with DNR ownership of land.
Why does Iowa purchase public lands? In the words of the Iowa DNR (p. 4):
The state purchases specific types of land on behalf of the citizens of Iowa to manage and protect natural resources and to provide public recreational opportunities. Across Iowa, wetlands, forests, scenic areas, prairies, wildlife and fish habitat, access easements to trout streams, rare species habitat, and other resources are being protected and managed. Owners of Iowa land who want to secure the protection or use of the natural resources voluntarily donate land, participate in the easement program, or sell acres for that purpose. The DNR 1) only negotiates with willing landowners, 2) does not condemn land, and 3) has a policy of paying appraised value for easements and acquisitions.
What do we know about the land in question? Here are the facts:
- The Iowa Department of Natural Resources manages about 485,000 acres of land in Iowa—that’s about 1.4% of the land in the state. DNR actually owns about 350,000 acres and manages the rest for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
- DNR manages about 45,000 (p. 12) farmed acres. That’s only about .17% of the more than 26.3 million acres of cropland in Iowa.
- Most of the lands the House considered selling are in state Wildlife Management Areas, which are managed to provide food and habitat for Iowa wildlife, among other purposes.
- This land was purchased with money from the federal government (which means restrictions exist on selling the land) or fees Iowans paid for hunting, fishing and trapping licenses for to be used for “promoting, managing, researching, and regulating hunting, fishing, and trapping in Iowa.”
- Wildlife management—including on public lands—is important to Iowa economically (p. 3). Hunting in the state provides $443 million in economic benefits each year, and wildlife watching provides $342 million in economic benefits each year.
What’s happening now with the House proposal right now? Most recently, the Des Moines Register’s Perry Beeman reported the House Ways and Means Committee is backing away from requiring DNR to sell agricultural land this year, but a provision banning DNR from acquiring agricultural land in the future is still under consideration.
Correction: An earlier version of this post used an incorrect number of acres of Iowa cropland. The 2007 Census of Agriculture reported 26,316,332 acres of cropland in Iowa.