U.S. Interior Dept. Announces Plans to Restore Native American Land


Via Flickr

Elizabeth Miglin | April 29, 2021

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued an order to ease the process for Native American tribes to apply for ownership and management of tribal land on Tuesday. The order reverses steps taken by the Trump administration to slow the application process and will help the Biden administration’s environmental justice efforts. 

In 2017 the Trump administration moved the land-into-trust decisions to the Interior Department’s headquarters staff, resulting in delays in the decision-making process. During the Trump administration 75,000 acres of land were placed into trust, compared to 560,000 acres under the Obama administration according to Reuters.

Under the Secretary’s Order 3400, the authority to review and approve land applicants has been re-delegated to the Bureau of Indian Affairs regional directors. The slowing of the approval process has resulted in increased costs and delays for tribes to develop housing projects, manage law enforcement agencies and develop local economies.

Native populations are at a higher risk of vulnerability to climate change due to a lack of food security, ability to adapt to climate change, and tribal control of resources. Researchers increasingly argue in favor of tribes gaining greater control in the resource management decision making process due to contemporary environmental inequalities which exacerbate the impact of climate change.  

The Interior Department estimates there are 1,000 pending applications by tribes to put land into trust, most of which are lands located within existing reservation boundaries. 

Learn more about the University of Iowa’s acknowledgment of land and sovereignty here

Controversial Manure Management Plan Approved By Iowa DNR


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | April 6th, 2021

Supreme Beef, a cattle operation stationed in northeastern Iowa, has had their proposed Manure Management Plan (MMP) approved by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The approval comes after a long series of hearings for the MMP that has faced scrutiny for the risk the plan poses to some of Iowa’s cleanest waters.  In particular, critics emphasized how unlikely it was that the cattle operation would evenly spread manure in the proposed 30 mile radius and that over application on farms closer to the feedlots could potentially pollute surface and groundwaters in the area. 

Northeastern Iowa is particularly susceptible to groundwater pollution from runoff and infiltration because of the porous karst topography found in the area.  Environmentalists who opposed the plan focused on Bloody Run Creek, a popular spot for fishing tourism because of the brown trout that can be found there, as an example of a pristine water that could be harmed by the IDNR’s decision. If the Creek was harmed Iowan’s could lose out on fishing tourism and the loss of one of the few “high quality” waters present in the state.

The Iowa Environmental Council has spoken out against the IDNR’s decision to approve the plan in a statement that took aim at the preferential treatment agriculture receives over environmental concerns.  

Proposed Changes To Tax Exemption For Forested Land Halts In Subcommittee


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | March 16th, 2021

After a Senate Ways and Means subcommittee hearing held yesterday, Senate File 352 was not advanced in the Senate which leaves the current tax exemption for Iowa’s forested land intact.

In the recently proposed bill, the current 100% property tax exemption for forested land would be reduced to 75%.  Opponents of the bill have suggested that these tax changes would harm forest reserves across the state as landowners may change how their forested land is used to offset increased property taxes.

Much of the push for the bill comes around the discussion of bad actors that abuse the tax exemption and improperly maintain their land.  The current requirements to qualify for the tax exemption are for landowners to participate in Iowa’s forest reserve program, and to maintain either 200 trees per acre, or 70 fruit trees per orchard.  While there may be some bad actors, state senator Joe Bolkcom emphasized that most private landowners in the program do a good job of maintaining Iowa’s forests.

After the derecho event last August, approximately a quarter of all trees in Iowa were lost to the storm, while in Cedar Rapids that number increases up to around 65%. Programs such as “ReLeaf” in Cedar Rapids are working to replace lost trees, however, these projects take a long time. For example, it is projected to require up to 15 years to replace Cedar Rapid’s lost trees.  Iowa’s forests provide significant recreational value for residents, and out of state visitors, which could be compromised if forested land was negatively affected. After losing so much of Iowa’s forests last summer, now is not the time to put forth a bill that could risk further deforestation in our state.

Drought Conditions Likely To Continue Into Crop Season


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | March 9th, 2021

Experts are concerned that the drought conditions currently affecting Iowa are likely to continue into the coming crop season.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor approximately 11% of Iowa is experiencing drought conditions and most of the affected counties are in northwestern Iowa where dry conditions have persisted for most of the year.  There is hope that spring snowmelt could address some of the moisture deficit, particularly if the snow melts slowly which would allow the soil to absorb the water.  Experts believe that reliable spring rainfall could help make up for dry conditions, however, Iowa is predicted to have less spring precipitation than normal because of persistent La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean.

Northwestern Iowa has recently experienced tough conditions as two years of dry soils have followed the heavy flooding in the area back in 2019.  Drought conditions can induce stress in crops which may lead to damage and reduced yields for both soybeans and corn.  After a year of uncertain crop markets, another year of drought is likely bring added difficulty for Iowan farmers.

Iowa GOP Senators Move to Cut Tax Exemptions for Forest Reserves


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | February 15, 2021

GOP members of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee voted last week to advance a bill that would reduce tax breaks for Iowa forest reserves.

Currently, landowners qualify for a 100% tax break on land made up of forests as small as two acres. The new bill would reduce the forest reserve tax break to 75% of the property value, require a minimum of 10 acres to qualify and place a five-year limit on exemptions. GOP senators who introduced the bill argued that it could prevent landowners from cheating the system, but Democrats criticized its timing as Iowa fights chronic water pollution and continues to recover from the derecho that destroyed 25% of the state’s trees last August, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids criticized Republicans for pushing a bill that could interfere with derecho recovery. Lawmakers have made little effort to help landowners recover, and increased taxes would only add to the burden of recovery costs, Hogg said. Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott also opposed the bill, saying that Iowa’s limited forest helps reduce water pollution and supports the state’s wood industry.

Iowa’s woodlands currently support a $4 billion forest industry. Because woodland owners have to wait until a tree is mature enough to cut it down, the tax breaks help alleviate the costs of growing and maintaining their trees in between harvests. Without the current exemption, some woodland owners could be forced to replace some of their trees with row crops. This crop conversion could accelerate soil erosion and increase water pollution in the state, according to the Des Moines Register.

If passed by the Senate, the bill’s language would require the Iowa DNR, rather than the agriculture department, to verify that land qualifies as a reserve. However, the bill does not allocate extra money to the DNR, and the state did not conduct a financial study to estimate the added cost.

Climate Driven Increase In Bat Species Richness Likely Connected To COVID-19


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | February 9th, 2021

In a new study, researchers have published a link between climate driven shifts in bat populations, and the emergence of COVID-19.

Researchers mapped the global range of bat populations, as well as changes in global vegetation within the past 100 years to determine how changes in global bat species richness were driven by climate change. There were many regions across the globe that experienced local increases in bat populations, such as parts of Brazil and eastern Africa, however a major hotspot was the Yunnan province in southern China.  Over the 100 year time span, around 40 bat species flocked to the province, which is a significant concern as it is known that the number of coronaviruses in a region is closely linked to local bat species richness.  Researchers point out that the Yunnan province is also the likely place of origin for both SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2. 

Bats are studied because they are known to carry the largest amount of zoonotic diseases out of all mammals, and both the SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks have been attributed to bat populations.  Zoonotic diseases are illnesses that are transferred to humans by animals when both populations begin to interact. As human’s develop and expand into animal habitats these interactions become more common, especially as climate change drives the spread of disease vectors such as mosquitoes.  In a separate study, it was shown that over 60% of emerging infectious diseases, like COVID-19, are linked to animal to human transmission.

Arctic Drilling Leases Might Not Get Many Takers as Deadline Approaches


Caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | December 31, 2020

The Trump administration successfully opened roughly one million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling following his election defeat, but oil companies might not have any interest in buying the 10-year leases.

Today marks the deadline for submitting bids on the oil leases, so the exact number of companies that have expressed interest is unclear. However, there has previously been little indication that oil companies are interested in buying the leases for several reasons. The drilling conditions would be difficult and the cost of locating the oil is high. Many companies are also concerned about damaging their reputation by drilling on previously-protected lands as Alaska natives and environmentalists continue to oppose drilling on the refuge, and many major banks have refused to finance companies who wish to drill there. The oil industry is struggling to make money during the pandemic as global interest shifts to renewable energy sources as it is, so the state of Alaska might be forced to step in and buy the leases itself, according to a New York Times article.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned corporation, recently voted to authorize bidding up to $20 million for some of the oil leases. If the corporation succeeds in securing the leases, the state of Alaska could become the sole owner and would be left with hoping that it can sublease the tracts to someone else if interest in drilling on the refuge ever picks up. There are legal questions as to whether the corporation qualifies as a bidder and ongoing efforts by Alaska natives and environmental groups to halt the bidding and sale of the leases altogether, so it is still unclear how the sales will proceed.

The National Arctic Wildlife Refuge was protected for decades by Democrats in Congress. It provides a sanctuary for polar bears, caribou, migrating waterfowl and other wildlife, and the Trump administration was the first to successfully push a bill through that allowed for drilling on 1.5 million acres of protected land. The Bureau of Land Management was able to remove about half a million acres from the bidding after citing concerns about disturbing caribou calving areas and other wildlife, but about a million acres across 22 tracts are still available. The Bureau of Land Management will reveal the number of bids received once the bids are opened after the submission deadline.

Hydrologist Warns A Proposal to Export Iowa’s Water Could Threaten City Water Supplies


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | October 27th, 2020

State hydrologist Mike Gannon warns that a request to export water from Iowa’s Jordan aquifer to other states would set a bad precedent.

Pattison Sand Co. of Clayton, IA wants to pump water from the Jordan Aquifer and export it to other states.  Gannon says that while the proposed pumping operation will be offset by high recharge rates in north-eastern Iowa, allowing a public resource to be used for private profits may draw other operations to Iowa. Additional pumping from the Jordan aquifer may threaten water supplies for cities across Iowa as drought and severe weather conditions become more common.

The Jordan aquifer is used by multiple cities for drinking water, including both Iowa City, and Des Moines.  The water level for the aquifer has already decreased by up to 150 feet in parts of Iowa because of heavy use, and recharge would potentially take around 300,000 years.

The proposal has been opposed by the Sierra Club and has been already been denied three times by Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources. There is another hearing for the case spanning November 9th, and 10th after Pattison Sand Co. appealed a previous ruling.

Climate change clearly linked to increased wildfire severity


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | September 29th, 2020

In a review of recent climate science, researchers have demonstrated that climate change increases the risk of wildfires across the globe.

Their review makes it clear that the influence of anthropogenic climate change on fire weather is moving beyond what can be accounted for by normal climate variations. Locations around the world have seen an increase in the severity and extent of fires, such as Australia or the Amazon and fire trends are only worsening. Models suggest that the length of fire season in the higher latitudes may increase by more than 20 days per year by 2100.

An unsurprising finding from the report is that fire weather only results in fires if natural or human sources of ignition occur. One way for humans to influence the frequency of wildfires is to manage burnable areas and address potential ignition sources.

These observations come as California is facing the worst fire season in the state’s history that is currently threatening the wine country. Climate conditions have led to drier vegetation and longer periods of drought that have resulted in these severe wildfires that have burnt more than a million of acres and displaced around 200,000 people.

Half of Soil Phosphorus Losses Attributed to Erosion


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | September 15th, 2020

According to a recent study, global phosphorus levels in soils are declining despite high levels of applied chemical fertilizers and soil erosion is to blame.

Researchers have analyzed global phosphorus levels in soils and found that all continents, except for Asia, Oceania, and Australia, have net negative soil phosphorus balances.  Phosphorus loss from soils poses a challenge to the global food supply because without phosphorus, an essential plant nutrient, crops are more susceptible to disease, and are likely to have stunted growth.  The most striking finding in the study was that around 50% of phosphorus losses from soils was attributed to soil erosion, a preventable but commonly neglected aspect of agriculture. 

Unfortunately, the phosphorus lost because of soil erosion poses another threat in the form of eutrophication. Eutrophication is caused by high levels of nutrients in aquatic ecosystems and is associated with declining water quality.  The increased nutrient concentrations promote large populations of algae, which consume large quantities of oxygen when they die and decompose.

Soil erosion in Iowa is a large concern as millions of tons of Iowa’s soil runs off tilled fields and into the rivers across the state each year.  Since soil erosion has now been identified as a leading cause for phosphorus losses in soils, Iowa is not only losing tons of topsoil per year, but also losing appreciable amounts of phosphorus as well.