Natural resources at risk in State cuts
Area parks, water quality, livestock inspections and dredging may suffer as DNR goes shorthanded
Iowa's natural resources have not been spared in the state's 10 percent across-the-board budget clear-cutting, and northwest Iowa environmental leaders wonder how deep the roots of economic damage may run.
One of the largest expenditure cuts from the DNR falls in the state parks funding.
Department of Natural Resources officials will be slicing $686,000 from their parks department. A preliminary department reduction plan includes a severe reduction in park staffing, a reduction or inability to provide resource management on prairies and woodlands and for invasive species control efforts, closing portions of parks that are not income-producing and reduction of park brochures and public programs.
IMPACT OF STATE CUTS
Historically the DNR has needed 300 seasonal employees, many of them college students, to properly help keep up and maintain parks across the state. This fiscal year the number of employees was reduced to 150 and with the most recent cuts the department is anticipating they'll only have 32 seasonal employees to work with state-wide in 2010.
"We're still working through a plan," says DNR spokesperson Kevin Baskins. "It could result in us closing portions of the parks that are not high income-producing or high maintenance with low public use including certain roads, parking lots and trails." Baskins says although they have not closed any parks, they have had to reduce maintenance to portions of the parks such as less frequent mowing and less frequent cleanup of facilities. In some cases where the mowing was reduced wildlife habitats have developed. "We have concentrated our maintenance efforts on campgrounds and other facilities such as lodges and cabins that produce revenue," he says.
During the budget constraints Baskins says he wants Iowans to understand there will be evident reductions in care to some beloved sites. "The state parks belong to all of us and all of us have the responsibility to be good stewards. We ask visitors to go the extra mile in helping keep our parks clean by picking up trash around campsites and picnic areas and encourage the use of recycling whenever possible," he says.
Despite reduction of maintenance efforts Baskins says the DNR has a talented and dedicated staff that is committed to conservation of Iowa's natural resources. "During these difficult economic times, we know it is more important than ever to provide quality recreational opportunities close to home."
This past year, Baskins says they've noticed a higher number of campers and increased sales of fishing licenses as people choose less expensive recreational options within northwest Iowa.
According to the department plan for spending reduction it was noted that the 85 DNR managed parks would defer all maintenance except critical repairs.
In Buena Vista County there are no state parks, but Storm Lake does boast the just-completed first state marina. Hopes to expand that site, with tourist cabins, a sand beach, trails, gazebo and restaurant, will probably stay on hold. There are no state parks in Clay County.
The impact will be seen dramatically in the Iowa Great Lakes region of Dickinson County, which boasts Elinor Bedell, Emerson Bay, Gull Point, Templar and Trapper's Bay State Park areas.
Even before the governor's cut was announced in October, the DNR says it had been struggling to afford and keep up maintenance in the region.
In 2007, in fact, the State sold Waneta Park to Clay County. The wildlife preserve covers about 160 acres on the south edge of Peterson.
According to Clay County Conservation Board Director Dan Heissel, the distance for state officials to drive to the area made it hard for them to regularly maintain it, so Clay County officials began helping out with mowing, keeping up the shelter house, cleaning restrooms and disposing of garbage. "It just made sense for us to buy it," says Heissel. The park provides wildlife refuge, hiking and bird watching, and could be expanded for camping.
Maybe there are other opportunities like this for other counties, he suggests.
Popular state-operated parks in other surrounding counties include Blackhawk State Park in Sac County, Ft. Defiance and Okamanpedan State Parks in Osceola County, Brushy Creek and Dolliver in Webster County.
MANURE MANAGEMENT WORRIES
With cuts to the Animal Feeding Operations department the DOT is discontinuing its on-site Manure Management Plan compliance inspections. Statewide, Baskins says the state conducted 819 MMP inspections last year, which is down from the more than 1,000 done in the previous two years. Statewide there are nearly 5,500 animal feeding operations with MMPs. The plans are required for hog operations with approximately 1,250 head or larger or operations with 500 or more cattle.
"Certainly, MMP inspections give us an opportunity to work directly with producers and offer expertise on manure management plans and other conservation issues. It offers us an opportunity to work directly with producers to avoid potential problems. The problem of not having inspection is the potential for over application of manure which can lead to run off of manure into surface waters," says Baskins.
Water quality is also an issue that took some hits. At this point Baskins says monitoring will be reduced, however, he had no specific details on what efforts would be reduced in the coming year.
CONCERNS FROM LOCAL COUNTIES
Nate Young with the Buena Vista County Conservation Board says most funding comes from the county level, but they also receive dollars for projects through REAP (Resource Enhancement and Protection fund) from the DNR. According to the DNR's Web site, 20 percent of the funds are allocated for County Conservation groups but questions loom on whether the funding will be reallocated to other areas after the state cut. "I don't know how it could not (be affected)," says Young. "REAP has never been fully funded." Local funds are often used for naturalist programs in the elementary schools and adult recreational programming. "I would hope they would keep the REAP funding but I also realize they have tough funding decisions," Young says.
John Walters with Dickinson County Conservation says they received their entire budgeted amount from the Board of Supervisors despite talks of possibly reducing the amounts as the recession hits counties. He says he now wonders if they'll ask department heads to return some of the budgets.
"We've got some hard choices ahead of us. The Supervisors have some tough decisions," Clay County's Heissel says. "But I can't look at a crystal ball and tell you what those are."
The County had wanted to partner with the DNR for an urban trout stocking program which would stock trout in Scharnberg Park over the holidays for ice fishing. "With budget cuts the DNR informed us of, we put it on hold," he says. "We have quite a few people who'd like to see it. Someday we'll get it."
Tom Kuhlman, executive vice president of the Iowa Great Lakes Chamber of Commerce, says the DNR passed new dock regulations and permits in the lakes region which generates about $200,000 a year. He said the funding was supposed to go toward lake patrol and staffing to help with invasive species on lakes but says he believes much of the funding just ends up going to Des Moines.
"There's plenty of money - it just depends on how they choose to spend it," he says. "I would think with the DNR they could find other areas to cut... we have to evaluate what's best for the taxpayers," he says.
Kuhlman says the busy lakes tourism area will simply have to shoulder its share of the burden and funding losses, but the cut hasn't chilled the enthusiasm for the upcoming Winter Games celebration, he says.
FUTURE OF LAKE DREDGING
With the state cuts comes concern about the future of Storm Lake dredging dollars. "I think any time the state starts talking about cutting, one has to wonder where it will be," says Gary Lalone, president of the Lake Preservation Association.
Lalone said each year they meet with area legislators to discuss the importance of the ongoing lake preservation and say they are thankful for the support and hard work the local legislators have given to secure funding to date. "We've had strong support on both sides of the aisle," he says.
About $7 million in funds from local and state sources have been invested in dredging since 2003. $1 million has been secured for next season's dredging, which locals feel should be secure despite the cuts. "You can rest assured we'll be down there working very hard to secure those funds," says Lalone.
OTHER FUNDING IMPACTS
The DNR's Baskins says there will be some delays on issuing permits for some wastewater projects. At this point he says it looks like those projects that are not by the State Revolving Loan Fund could expect to have to wait longer for permits to be approved. The Satellite State Forest Nursery in Montrose will be closed as a result of the cuts and fewer trees will be produced at the State Forest Nursery in Ames. Baskins says this will most likely result in increased costs and difficulties in reforesting or timber stand improvements.
THE POLITICS OF ENVIRONMENT
Area state politicians say they would like to see environmental funding maintained to avoid losing some of the gain that has been experienced in years of effort on behalf of the northwest Iowa lakes and streams.
"I wouldn't expect any better maintenance at the parks, but hopefully we can maintain the dredging," says Rep. Gary Worthan, a Storm Lake Republican.
"The dredging at Storm Lake is held up as an example for the entire state on what can happen with cooperation between local and state entities. I know the DNR will take cuts, but it has been one of the higher priorities since I have been in the legislature, and the general feeling is still that we need to invest more in the outdoors than we have. When you are 20 percent short of revenue to cover your expenditures, you have to cut, but we also have to realize that our natural resources is what drives our tourism for this state."
David Johnson, Republican Senator from Ocheyedan, agrees.
"Absolutely I care about Storm Lake - we have invested so much state money in King's Pointe -- we need to see success continue. And at the Iowa Great Lakes, we certainly have issues that need to be part of the discussion," he says.
"State government has spent too much money over the years, and put all these programs into jeopardy. We have to continue to pay attention to the environment, and I think we will find ways to continue to do this, not just on the state level but the federal level as well," Johnson said. "We have made great progress in the Storm Lake area and we have to protect the resources and investments in them that we have - if we can just get through this budget mess."
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