There were some public-funded parks in major cities on the East Coast before 1900, but federal efforts to establish the first national parks and wildlife refuges began around then. Iowa began to focus some public funds on conservation and parks about 30 years later.
Funding support for conservation and parks peaked many years ago, and, sadly, both federal- and state-funded support has seen a steady decline in recent decades. There are reasons for the decline beyond tight fiscal policies and shifts in legislative priorities.
Conservation funding in Iowa comes from several major sources. License fees (hunting, fishing, trapping, etc.) cover a large part of the work that has been done on fish and wildlife management.
Those funds are supplemented by federal excise taxes on guns and ammunition (Pittman-Robertson funds also known as Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration) and on fishing equipment (Dingell-Johnson funds also known as Federal Aid for Restoration and Management of Fish).
State general funds have supported most of the state park work. Iowans have had strong support for state-funded conservation and park work.
In 1996, 88 percent of Iowa voters approved adding the Iowa Fish and Game Trust Fund to the state constitution. Those funds can only be used for fish and wildlife worknow and cannot be shifted to other purposes as they sometimes were before.
They can’t even be used for parks, trails, camping or other conservation-related purposes, including water quality work.
The average age of hunters and anglers in Iowa and across the nation has continued to climb as fewer young people pursue those kinds of outdoor activities.
Fishing license sales have held up better than hunting and trapping, but all license sales have declined steadily as older people “age out” and aren’t replaced by younger people.
The Fish and Game Trust fund had $66 million in 2011 but had dropped to $53 million in 2017. Another drop is expected in 2018. Fewer licenses sold leads to less revenue for needed fish and wildlife work. State parks have been particularly hard hit by years of budget cuts.
Thankfully, Iowa has its county conservation systems like no other state with 98 of those 99 programs voted into existence by the people in county-by-county referendums over the past 60 years.
County conservation is funded by county property taxes, user fees, such as camping and facility rentals, and miscellaneous competitive grants.
County conservation has helped to blunt the declines in state conservation funding, but many counties are facing their own budget strains.
Iowa has a proud record of private conservation funding that has become increasingly important as the state has pulled back from its conservation commitments.
The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Whitetails Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Izaak Walton League and more have stepped in to help acquire and manage wildlife habitat areas, nature preserves and parks.
They work with private landowners to add habitat improvements to their acreages and farms as well as cost-sharing on projects with counties and the state.
They work with the state on recruitment and retention of hunters and anglers by offering programs to get young people and more women involved in hunting and fishing.
Open any of their magazines or newsletters and you’ll find photo after photo of young people and women enjoying days in the field with their often older male friends and family members.
Iowa still has a chance this year to address the state’s newest conservation funding effort called the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.
It’s set up to do so much more than the old Fish and Game Trust Fund (including things such as park maintenance, habitat management, soil conservation and water quality).
The Legislature has not seen fit to put a single dollar into the new trust fund since it was voted into existence by 63 percent of the voters in 2010.
A 2017 poll showed support for “Funding the Trust” had increased to 69 percent.
Some neighboring states have had very successful similar programs in place for years. There isn’t much time left in this legislative session, but it could still happen if a few more legislators had their hearts in the right place.
Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.