Polk County is Meeting to Discuss Future Outdoor Public Spaces


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Josie Taylor | October 21, 2021

Today there will be a town hall style meeting for Polk County’s upcoming $65 million bond referendum to fund water, parks and trails projects.

The Polk County Water & Land Legacy Bond needs support from at least 60% of voters in the Nov. 2 referendum to pass. A similar measure in 2012 got 72% approval among voters, and a survey this spring of likely voters suggested similar support this year, said Rich Leopold, the county’s conservation director.

The average Polk County property owner will pay an estimated $11 per year if the referendum succeeds.

This referendum is focused completely on public outdoor spaces. 

It’s anticipated that up to $15 million of the new referendum money would help pay for projects prioritized by the Iowa Confluence Water Trails group, which is led by local elected officials, business leaders and others. The group wants to improve several creeks and rivers to better accommodate canoeing, kayaking and tubing to encourage recreational tourism.

Some of the money will also fund a new campground and other improvements to Sleepy Hollow Sports Park, which the county bought this year.

Iowa Lost Over 7 Million Trees in the Derecho, DNR Says


Derecho Damage in Ames, IA

Josie Taylor | September 15, 2021

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has reported that last summer’s derecho cost Iowa 7.2 million trees as wind gusts got up to 140 miles per hour in some counties. The cities that lost the most were Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Davenport. 

Iowa cities lost 4.5 million trees, and rural Iowa lost 2.7 million trees. 13 percent of all urban trees were lost to the derecho. Cedar Rapids, however, lost 70 percent of their urban trees as they lost 953,224 trees alone. Iowa City and Johnson County lost 234,567 trees. 

The lack of trees in Iowa will ultimately contribute to climate change since trees capture carbon, reduce air pollution, provide natural shade and provide windbreaks. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called the derecho “the costliest thunderstorm in U.S. history. The state sustained $11 billion in damages and Iowan families have filed for $3 billion, according to the Iowa Insurance Division. 

Biden Plans to Restore Endangered Species Regulations Rolled back by Trump


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 23, 2021

The Biden administration announced plans to rewrite changes made to the Endangered Species Act, on Friday.

Led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the focus will be on five regulatory changes made by the Trump administration. The revisions will significantly shift rules on habitat designations and reinstate the “blanket rule,” which requires additional protections for newly classified threatened species. 

Under Trump, habitat protections were rolled back in order to reduce limits on energy industries such as oil drilling and mining. However, the weakening of regulations, such as the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act, made it harder to prosecute bird and other animal deaths caused by energy development. The bird act was among more than 100 business-friendly amendments made by Trump that Biden plans to reconsider according to The Chicago Tribune

A few of the Trump administration changes have been delayed or stopped prior to implementation. One of these changes includes the one-third reduction of protected federal old-growth forest used by the spotted owl which was announced during the final days of the Trump administration. 

The reviews announced by the Biden administration will take months or years to complete, continuing a decades-old debate between Republican and Democratic approaches to environmental regulation.

Des Moines Design Panel Approves $28 Million River Recreation Project


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 16, 2021

A Des Moines city design panel approved plans for a $28 million conversion of Des Moines’ Scott Avenue dam into a fishing and kayaking area on Tuesday. 

The Scott Avenue conversion is the largest of four major projects planned for water trails development downtown and is one of the first to use portions of a $25 million federal grant arranged by Central Iowa Water Trails and the Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The project is a part of the $100 million-plus plan to improve safety by replacing or changing low-head dams while improving recreation. While the biggest project at the Center Street Dam will be voted on later, the other approved projects are at the Prospect and Birdland parks and near Harriett Street. 

Plans for the Scott Avenue project add three “drop-offs” for kayaking, a fish passage, seating in areas near the river and a secondary dam to improve safety. At Tuesday’s meeting, discussion was focused around using limestone, granit, or other natural materials, such as planting prairie and lawn grass for stabilization and decor. 

Work on the project is expected to take two years, beginning in July 2022. 

Biden to Suspend Oil and Gas Leases in Alaskan Wildlife Refuge


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 2, 2021

The Biden administration is suspending all oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in order to take a deeper look at the environmental impacts of drilling in the region, the Interior Department announced on Tuesday. 

The Refuge is a 1.6 million-acre stretch of tundra on Alaska’s North Slope and is home to endangered polar bears whose population have been in dramatic decline due to diminishing sea ice. The region also provides important calving habitat for the Porcupine caribou herd.

Under the Trump administration, the Bureau of Land Management began administering an oil and gas program in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. The opening of the coast to drilling signified the culmination of a four-decade-long effort by the oil industry to gain access to the refuge. The lease sale on January 6, 2021 resulted in 10-year leases on nine tracts covering more than 430,000 acres according to the Department of the Interior. Imposing more restrictions on development in the region or ending the leases altogether would undo a signature policy of the Trump administration. 

The suspension of the leases follows the Biden Administrations official review of the activity in the Refuge. The review found multiple defects in the Record of Decision supporting the leases, such as the lack of analysis of a reasonable range of alternatives and other legal deficiencies. The suspensions, notably, do not go as far as environmental groups might hope as they do not void the leases all together. However, the initial executive order to review the leases left open the possibility the department would establish a new environmental review process to address legal flaws in the program itself. 

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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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.