DES MOINES, Iowa — Hundreds flooded the Iowa capitol Monday for a hearing on a proposal that would limit the state and local governments from purchasing public lands for parks, wildlife habitat areas and water quality projects — an effort that ultimately did not advance because of overwhelming opposition.
Under the bill, states would be limited in their ability to purchase new land for state parks, wildlife habitats or water quality projects. Counties would also not be able to expand their public lands for conservation efforts or recreational activities like trails or public museums.
The bill would also eliminate a conservation tax credit designed to be an incentive for land protection.
The Iowa Farm Bureau was the only group in the packed Iowa House hearing Monday that voiced support for the proposal, saying it would level the playing field for farmers to purchase land, and would double down efforts on preserving existing public lands.
“The Department of Natural Resources and the state should focus more of their dollars and energies towards managing the land the state already owns instead of acquiring additional acres at this point," said Kevin Kuhle, a lobbyist for the Iowa Farm Bureau.
By contrast, over a dozen spoke out against the bill, decrying it as an attack on conservation efforts and Iowans' quality of life.
“A younger generation is looking for outdoor recreation amenities. We’re looking to improve water quality, enhance soil health and what this bill would do is restrict the tools available to do those things," Anna Gray, public policy director for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. She said about three percent of Iowa's acres are public land.
Others made the case that a bill like this could also undermine economic development efforts.
"We're learning more and more that millennials are deciding where they want to live before they even have a job because they want to go somewhere that they like," said Molly Hanson, executive director of Iowa Rivers Revival. "So when there's stuff to do and natural amenities, it makes the choice easier."
Story County resident Don Berning said all three of his children, who were born and raised in Iowa, left the state for this very reason.
"They all live in Denver and you can take a rock in any which direction out there and you'll hit an Iowan," said Berning. “Another thing this state needs desperately is professionals but we’re not retaining them because they don’t have the ability to do what they want.”
The House panel decided not to move the bill forward Monday. A key lawmaker said he has a lot of problems with the bill before the hearing and said there isn't enough support for it.
"None of us [on the subcommittee] will support the bill the way it is," said Rep. Rob Bacon, R-Slater, who is the chair of the Natural Resources Committee. "So in my opinion, technically this bill is dead," Bacon continued, citing a key legislative deadline looming at the end of the week.
Separately, the Iowa Senate advanced a bill that would also eliminate a conservation tax credit and prohibits the state and local entities from purchasing land targeting water quality improvement.