Iowa general assembly adjourns, still no water quality funding


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Iowa legislators have failed to approve long-term funding for water quality projects that were approved by voters in 2010. (Michael Leland/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | April 25, 2017

The Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoors Trust Fund remains empty after legislators adjourned the 86th General Assembly on Saturday without passing policy to fund water quality improvement in the state.

Long-term funding for water quality was not included in next year’s $7.2 billion state budget, even though the vast majority of Iowa voters supported establishing the fund more than seven years ago. The House and Senate each devised their own plans for funding, but neither plan garnered support from both houses.

Legislators in the Senate proposed an amendment that would have increased Iowa’s sales tax by three-eighths of one cent. The plan would have generated around $180 million dollars per year for the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoors Trust Fund, 60 percent of which would have gone to water quality improvement projects. The proposal was championed by Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, a coalition of environmentalists, political leaders and Iowa businesses dedicated to promoting water and land conservation measures. Although the sales tax increase had support on both sides of the aisle, it lost in the Senate vote 34 to 16.

The Iowa House of Representatives proposed a plan that would have redirected money from a sales tax Iowans already pay on tap water to water quality improvement projects. The 6 percent tax currently funds infrastructure projects for community school districts and other municipal projects. The plan was approved by the House, even though some Democrats criticized the it for cutting funds from other state programs.

Kirk Leeds is CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA). In an interview with CBC, he said, “This year’s legislative session was a missed opportunity to act boldly on improving Iowa’s water.” Leeds continued, “ISA will seek continued partnerships with farmers and cities to make real progress on conservation to the benefit of all Iowans.”

Dr. Steve Hendrix speaks up for the wild bee


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Dr. Steve Hendrix was the keynote speaker at this week’s 34th Bur Oak Land Trust Prairie Preview. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | March 10, 2017

When the general public thinks about bees, one image comes to mind: the honeybee.

If UI Professor Emeritus Steve Hendrix’s presentation, titled “Wild Bees of Iowa: Hidden Diversity in the Service of Conservation” had a central message, it was that nearly 20,000 other bee species exist and provide often under-recognized ecosystem services.

Hendrix gave the presentation at 34th Bur Oak Land Trust Prairie Preview on Thursday night to a crowd of nearly 300. He said, “All plants need pollinators some of the time, and at least some plants need pollinators all of the time.” Indeed, pollinators provide 225 billion dollars in pollination services. While honeybees receive the majority of public praise, wild bees, which are often small, solitary creatures with short life spans, do 90 percent of the pollinating on U.S. farms. Additionally, according to Hendrix’s research findings, honeybees are less effective pollinators than wild bees.

While the number of bees in the U.S. is declining, one of Hendrix’s studies provided a glimmer of hope for bees in North America. Hendrix and his colleagues compared populations of bees on large prairies with those in smaller, urban gardens and parks. Surprisingly, regardless of the area of land the bees had to roam, there was no difference in bee diversity, species richness, or abundance. The main predictor for healthy bee populations was the presence of a extremely diverse plant life.

Hendrix rounded out his presentation with a look to the future for wild bees. He emphasized once more the importance of the insects, which are largely credited with providing food security for humans. He said, “There’s going to be changes in the distribution of bees.” Due to global warming, many bee species that were previously found in southern states are making their way to Iowa. Hendrix added, “The big bees are going to be the losers in this climate change world we’re living in…it’s going to be the rare bees that are affected most.” Hendrix said that there has been limited research about what this will mean for ecosystems and human health, but encouraged all those in the audience to continue fighting to conserve habitat for bees in Iowa.

 

Statewide monarch butterfly conservation strategy released


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The Cerro Pelón Reserve near Macheros is the second most populous monarch butterfly roosting site in Mexico during the winter months. (Dylan Hillyer/personal collection)
Jenna Ladd | February 28, 2017

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium released its statewide strategy for the conservation and advancement of the monarch butterfly on Monday.

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy aims to recover monarch butterfly populations in Iowa and North America. Developed by the consortium-a group of more than thirty organizations including agricultural and conservation groups, agribusiness and utility companies, county associations, universities and state and federal agencies-the strategy provides necessary resources and information to advance the well-being of monarch butterflies in Iowa and across the continent.

A recent report found that the population of monarch butterflies that spend the winter months in Mexico decreased by 27 percent in 2016, primarily due to extreme weather events and the pervasive loss of the milkweed plant. Milkweed is the only plant in which female monarchs will lay their eggs as well as the primary food source for monarch caterpillars. According to the consortium, about 40 percent of monarchs that overwinter in Mexico come from Iowa and its neighboring states. In the last two decades, the total monarch population has declined by 80 percent.

Monarch butterflies provide vital ecosystem services including pollination and natural pest management. They also serve as a food source to larger animals such birds and bats.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp said, “We didn’t get to this point overnight, and we aren’t going to improve the population overnight. But we have a really strong group across many different areas of expertise working together to improve the outlook for the monarch in Iowa and beyond.”

The strategy provides scientifically-based conservation practices that include using monarch friendly weed management, utilizing the farm bill to plant breeding habitat, and closely following instruction labels when applying pesticides that may be toxic to the butterfly.

In June 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will determine whether or not to list the monarch butterfly as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Wendy Wintersteen is dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University. She said, “This strategy is critical to rally Iowa agriculture, landowners and citizens to continue to make progress in restoring monarch habitat.”

Congressman Chaffetz to kill House Bill 621 following public opposition


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The Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act of 2017 proposed selling off an area of public lands equal to the size of Connecticut across ten western states. (Bureau of Land Management/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 3, 2017

House Republicans are expected to throw out a bill on Friday that would have sold off more than 3 million acres of federal public lands.

Environmental conservationists and hunters joined forces to oppose House Bill 621 after Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz announced it last week. The bill would have ordered the Department of Interior to immediately sell off 3.3 million acres of “disposable” land across ten western states, claiming that the land served “no purpose for taxpayers.”

Jason Amaro is a sportsman with the south-west chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He said, “Last I checked, hunters and fishermen were taxpayers. That word ‘disposal’ is scary. It’s not ‘disposable’ for an outdoorsman.” Public lands in the Western U.S. provide habitat for elk, gray wolves, and grizzly bears, a vast playground for outdoor enthusiasts, and can be leased out for timber, oil, and gas extraction. The Wilderness Society values the national outdoor recreation economy at just over $646 billion.

Chaffetz said he feared the bill “sent the wrong message” on Thursday and pledged to rescind it on Friday. The Tea Party Republican commented below an Instagram photo of himself wearing hunting gear outdoors. He said, “I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands. I hear you and HR 621 dies tomorrow.” Chaffetz’s comment came after many opponents of the bill overwhelmed his Instagram account with comments asking him to “#keepitpublic” and “say no to HR 621.”

Although President Trump is in favor of utilizing more public lands for oil and gas extraction, he has stated that he is opposed to selling off federally owned lands. In an interview with Field & Stream, he said, “I don’t think it’s something that should be sold.” The President is also opposed to giving states ownership of public lands. He added, “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don’t know what the state is going to do.”

Rusty patched bumble bee added to Iowa endangered species list


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The rusty patched bumble bee used to be found across 31 states and parts of Canada, but is now only found in a few upper Midwest locations. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Jenna Ladd | January 12, 2017

The rusty patched bumble bee was recently added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species list for the first time.

The Xerces Society, a non-profit conservation group out of Portland, Oregon, petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service for the species’ new designation. Serina Jepsen, director of the Xerces endangered species program, said in an interview with Radio Iowa, “The rusty patched bumble bee has declined by about 90% from its historic range,” Jepsen added, “It used to occur across 31 states as well as some Canadian provinces. It now occurs in just a handful of locations and it really only exists in any numbers in a few areas in the upper Midwest.”

Small numbers of the rusty patched bumble bee are still found in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, but meaningful populations have not been detected in Iowa in years. Native pollinators like the rusty patched bumble bee are estimated to add $9 billion in value to the agricultural economy each year.

Jepsen said, “These animals together, not just the rusty patched bumble bee, but the rusty patched bumble bee and all of the other native bees that provide pollination to both wildflowers and natural ecosystems as well as our crops, are incredibly important to functioning ecosystems.”

Now that the species has been added to the endangered species list, “The Fish and Wildlife Service now has the authority to develop a recovery plan and work towards the species recovery. I think this will really make the difference this species needs in terms of its future survival and existence, really,” Jepsen said.

She added that providing habitat that sustains all pollinators depends on the continuation of investment from public agencies combined with efforts of private citizens.

The rusty patched bumble bee has a way of giving back.

Jepsen said, “Addressing the threats to the rusty patched bumble bee that it faces, from pesticide use, from disease, from habitat loss, will help not only this species but a wide variety of other native pollinators that are really important to functioning natural ecosystems as well as agricultural systems.”

Conservation Reserve Program amended to support new farmers


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Buffer zones curb soil erosion and help to filter nutrients before they enter waterways. (USDA National Agroforestry Center/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 30, 2016

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has modified a national conservation program in order to support beginning farmers.

Since 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program has paid farmers a yearly rent for removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production. Most contracts last 10-15 years. Previously, if farmers broke the contract early, they were required to return all the rental payments with interest. With the policy change, farmers may now end their contracts early without penalty if they sell or lease the land to a beginning farmer.

Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary Lanon Baccam announced the policy change, which will take effect January 9th, at the Joe Dunn farm near Carlisle in central Iowa. Dunn’s son-in-law, Aaron White, is a beginning farmer on a small acreage near Carlisle.

White said, “I think the biggest obstacle beginning farmers face is land access. This program would help alleviate some of those problems.” Lanon Baccam agreed, he said giving the next generation of farmers a chance at success makes perfect sense.

Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program is the largest private-land conservation effort in the country. It is unclear how the program’s stated goal of improving water quality, reducing soil erosion and protecting habitat for endangered species will be effected by putting environmentally sensitive land back into production for beginning famers.

More information about the Conservation Reserve Program in Iowa can be found here.

Wildlife conservation has health benefits, experts say


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Health professionals spoke out in favor of wildlife conservation on Thursday. (USFWSmidwest/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 9, 2016

Six health organizations spoke out in favor of the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund on Thursday.

The measure would raise the state sales tax three-eighths of one cent in order to finance water quality measures, outdoor recreation areas and wildlife conservation. Representatives from the health organizations said that the trust fund could reduce Iowans’ risk of chronic health problems like diabetes and heart disease. Richard Deming is a Des Moines doctor who founded Above+Beyond Cancer. He said, “Our organization has seen first-hand the health benefits of vibrant outdoor recreation and the importance of a safe, healthy environment for the body’s overall well-being.”

Iowans voted sixty-three percent in favor of establishing the fund in 2010, but lawmakers have failed to provide funding for the initiative. The health organizations have joined a broader coalition of 75 individuals, businesses, outdoor enthusiasts as well as conservation and farm groups called Iowa’s Water & Land Legacy. The coalition is a subgroup of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. Joe McGovern is president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. In a statement, McGovern pointed out that the Iowa Republican majority is caucusing this week. He said, “We want I-WILL to be part of the solution to water quality and outdoor recreation.”

Following the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, Iowa’s Water & Land Legacy has argued that alternative funding proposals focus too much on water quality improvement. The three-eighths of one cent sales tax would generate $180 million each year. Proponents say about 60 percent could go to water quality, and the remaining funds could be used for wildlife habitat, parks, trails and other conservation efforts.