Invest in Iowa’s state parks – The Gazette

Parks are popular and economically important, while also underfunded and marred by Iowa’s continuing struggle with dirty water. Something is wrong with this picture.

Iowa is shortchanging its state parks, even as Iowans’ desire to get outdoors is making them more popular than ever.

A report by IowaWatch published in The Gazette this week, citing Iowa Parks Foundation data, showed a record 16.6 million park visits last year. Although an exodus outdoors amid the coronavirus pandemic fueled that number in part, visits have been trending upward since the mid-1990s.

But the number of park rangers has fallen from 55 to 35, leaving one ranger for every 474,286 park visits. State funding for park operations in 2020 was $6.2 million, less than the state was spending on parks in 2010.

Also this week, The Gazette’s Erin Jordan reported 24 swim advisories were issued this summer at state park beaches for toxic microcystins generated by algae blooms, which threaten the health of people and pets. That’s double the number of algae-related advisories last year.

The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation estimates outdoor recreation generates $6.1 billion in consumer spending in Iowa, $1.7 billion in wages and $433 million in state and local tax revenue.

So parks are popular and economically important, while also underfunded and marred by Iowa’s continuing struggle with dirty water. Something is wrong with this picture.

Nearly 11 years ago, an overwhelming majority of Iowans voted to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, a constitutionally protected pot of dollars that was supposed to fund recreation, parks and water quality improvement efforts. It remains empty because Statehouse leaders have been reluctant to raise the sales tax to fill it.

In 2019, Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed pumping dollars into the fund. But her convoluted plan to swap a sales tax increase for an income-tax cut and dramatically change the formula for how trust fund dollars would be spent generated little enthusiasm in the Legislature.

We’ve long supported filling the trust fund. The notion that voters wanted a fund that would sit empty for years to come is nonsense. They wanted new funding for outdoor recreation and natural resources. Park visits show Iowans are still voting for more outdoor opportunities.

But whether it’s the sales tax or some other revenue stream, Statehouse leaders must invest more resources into natural resources. Lawmakers are fond of handing out tax cuts, credits and exemptions in the name of economic development. It’s time to recognize that outdoor recreation is an economic engine in need of fuel.

The state is launching a marketing campaign to attract people to live here called “This is Iowa.” An underfunded parks system and dirty water aren’t much of a sales pitch.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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