Aldo Leopold was, perhaps, the greatest conservation leader ever to come out of Iowa. He’s still known as the “Father of Modern Wildlife Management,” and introduced something into American thinking called a “land ethic.” A month’s worth of these columns couldn’t share all of his famous conservation quotes. They are part of the bedrock on which modern conservation was built. You wouldn’t have to guess to know what he’d think of the status of conservation in Iowa today, and it would be the same for other Iowa conservation luminaries like J. N. “Ding” Darling, who was a prolific editorial cartoonist as well as the first head of what we now know as the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. Oh, they’d be proud of what we’ve accomplished, but right now they wouldn’t be smiling.
There are some in Iowa who are cheering the recently past legislature’s accomplishments, but conservationists certainly aren’t among them, at least where conservation issues and funding are concerned. They actually did allow the DNR to protect Iowa’s turtles with the establishment of a legal season and limits, and the 2017 legislative session began with bipartisan support to finally get something done about water quality after years of bickering and no action whatsoever. Even the governor seemed to think it was time to do something. It ended, yet again, with more bickering and nothing done. Worse, a leading legislator was reportedly quoted as saying “the sky isn’t falling” when asked about their failure to fund water quality work. In other words, he didn’t think it was really that important a problem, and certainly not a priority requiring additional support from the state. He may have felt that years of scientific study and reports on the level of nutrient pollution in our surface waters were little more than “fake news.” I suppose I could even agree that the sky isn’t falling — I feel like it fell some years ago when Iowa’s leaders chose to start ignoring the reports scientists were giving them about the condition of our water.
Aldo Leopold defined ethics as “doing the right thing even when no one is looking, and even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” No one can question that the legislative package the people were handed this year was legal, but as far as supporting conservation issues, our Iowa legislature has succeeded in doing the wrong thing even when everyone was looking. The “frosting” they added to their bitter 2017 conservation cake (one of the bitterest in years) was cutting all funding to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU and essentially closing the doors of one of the nation’s leading conservation research programs for agriculture. The Iowa DNR was far from alone in having to endure another round of budget cuts in this difficult budget year, but it came on the heels of many successive years of cuts that long ago whittled away any “fat” that might have been present. The legislature is now whittling away muscle and bone, too, in what seems to be a deliberate attempt to kill much of what’s left in a form of “death by 1,000 cuts.” Watch for at least a few state parks to close and for regular maintenance to be deferred or totally eliminated at others. Watch for popular fish stocking programs to be cut back or eliminated. Oh, yes, I almost forgot. The legislature also denied the DNR’s request to raise some license fees that haven’t changed since the early ’90s. I wish they didn’t have to try to raise fees and license costs, but they were left with little alternative to continue the programs they offer. Now they don’t have that, either.
The political pendulum will eventually swing back in conservation’s favor, but sadly, as is typical in America, it will likely require some kind of catastrophe that hurts enough to really get people’s attention (even legislators). So, for now, we wait and hope for better times — maybe next year.
Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at email@example.com.