Pandemic, racial reckoning renew calls in Iowa for outdoors investments

Environment

Mike Moen, Public News Service - Iowa

This year, many more Iowans have flocked to parks and other outdoor spaces to escape the pandemic.

That's prompted calls for more government investment in natural resources, and to make them more accessible to people of color.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources said state park attendance is up by more than one million people when compared with the same time last year. Observers connect the increase to the pandemic.

Also in 2020, racial reckoning has brought more attention to longstanding disparities, including outdoors access.

Cody Smith, policy associate at the Center for Rural Affairs, applauded Congress for its recent approval of the Great American Outdoors Act. He said it's time for state leaders to do their part.

"We've been waiting for a decade at this point for the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, also known as I-WILL, to be funded," Smith said.

The Center wants the Legislature to revive a plan offered by Gov. Kim Reynolds earlier this year.

The Invest in Iowa Act would boost the state sales tax by one cent to add money to the voter-approved trust fund.

Supporters say it would empower local communities to enhance the outdoors experience for all residents, creating equal access. But the plan initially was met with mixed reviews, including concerns over the tax-hike effect on lower-income residents.

But supporters say the plan will bring tax relief in other areas, including income and property taxes.

They say it also would boost funding for certain initiatives, including the Local Conservation Partnerships Program.

Lori Scovel, executive director for the Limestone Bluffs Resource Conservation and Development Area, said while she's not advocating for a specific bill, additional long-term funding would be a big help.

"That's great if you can give us money for three years," Scovel said. "But what about 10 years down the road? Consistent funding, sustainability that can keep these organizations going and not see a turnover in staff and effort."

Certain environmental groups have questioned whether the plan places too much of an emphasis on economic development through the outdoors, and not enough species and wildlife protection.

Despite some lukewarm response, the Center said a survey it conducted this year found that nearly 60 percent of Iowans supported it.

Click here to listen to the interview.