As tourists flock to Iowa’s state parks in record numbers, the park system struggles to sustain adequate funding from the state, despite being a major contributor to its economy and an escape for Iowans amidst a global pandemic, an investigation by IowaWatch has found.
Iowa’s park system is one of state government’s most popular programs. Visitations skyrocketed to a record 16.6 million last year.
That record reflects an upward trend dating back to 1995. Yet the number of park rangers needed to serve that influx has gone in reverse while state funding for parks remained flat, according to data from the nonprofit Iowa Parks Foundation.
“These places have to be maintained to be preserved and protected, and it does require resources,” said Patricia Boddy, a former deputy director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources who was involved in a 2011 comprehensive architectural design study of parks.
“We’ve got parks that are beautiful,” she said. “They are amazing spaces; they were set aside for their pristine qualities and what they can do for the soul, and we’re letting them go downhill rapidly because we won’t make the investment.”
State employee and visitation data show a ranger force of 55 has been slashed to 35 since 1995. Viewed in proportion to skyrocketing visitations, that cutback appears devastating. The ranger force now is down to 1 ranger for every 474,286 park visits from the 1995 ratio of 1 to 217,700.
Such staff cuts could affect park staff’s ability to do what they normally do – reduce reckless boating, curb drug abuse, control vandalism, deal with domestic spats and public drunkenness among users, enforce illegal hunting and fishing laws, and maintain safe and sanitary conditions, the IowaWatch investigation found.
The investigation, carried out over the past three months, involved visits to more than 50 state parks, an examination of state laws, strategic plans, documents and statistics from state sources and private foundations, and dozens of interviews with outdoor recreation experts, park rangers and managers, park users and advocates, state officials and lawmakers. It also drew upon data published in other stories for the IowaWatch Iowa State Parks project.
The investigation found that, despite funding problems and staff cuts, Iowa’s parks currently are useable, and most visitors say they enjoy them. Most of the visited parks were generally clean and adequately maintained, although exceptions were not uncommon and parks officials depend heavily on volunteers.
But such a hold-what-you-got operation worries park advocates and experts. They say the continuous and decade-long funding shortage and staffing decline will increasingly take its toll.
Planned park maintenance and renovations are often sidelined, State Parks Bureau data show. And detailed plans that would accommodate the demand and build for the future gather dust.
Sometimes, the lack of park funding manifests itself at the campsite level.
The parks got so busy earlier this year, weekend campsite reservations for June and July were booked up by late May.
During one June 2020 weekend, the crush of visitors at Lake MacBride State Park in Johnson County forced the state to close the entrances temporarily, because beachgoers had overwhelmed the staff. Parking lots were full and boat ramps packed. The state had to dispatch rangers from elsewhere to help, leaving parks in southeast Iowa uncovered.
In an IowaWatch report for an earlier part of this project, Rep. Charles Isenhart, D-Dubuque, said funding for park operations fell to $5.7 million in 2019 from $6.6 million in 2010 – a 26 percent decrease when adjusting for inflation – before ticking up to $6.2 million last year. There was an effort this year to give parks additional funding.
In the meantime, two ambitious plans that would have addressed these and other problems and created a permanent revenue stream have been all but abandoned.
One of those plans, the Parks to People Strategic Plan, was crafted in 2014 by the Iowa Parks Foundation, with the help and support of DNR under then-Gov. Terry Branstad. It intended to create a fully connected 21st century parks system that links Iowa’s landscape of public and private lands and parks, trails, and waterways; however, only three regions — which translates to 12 of Iowa’s 99 counties — have been formed to connect their parks.
The other plan created the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund through a constitutional amendment. It had gained near unanimous, bipartisan support in the Iowa Legislature and was subsequently approved by 63 percent of the voters in a 2010 referendum. It was seen as a funding panacea for Iowa’s natural resources and parks.
The panacea fades
To date, the Trust Fund remains empty due to lack of state action, and Gov. Kim Reynolds has not said whether she will try to fill it.
Iowa is among many states that have adopted constitutional amendments funding outdoor recreation, according to the Trust for Public Land, a nationwide nonprofit organization formed to “create parks and protect land for people.”
The difference, however, is that other states have used them to generate that needed revenue.
“We thought it was heralding this great new era,” Boddy said. “What a disappointment.” Boddy served as interim DNR director when the Iowa constitutional amendment was passed in 2010.
Ted Kourousis, executive director of Glacial Lakes Region for Parks to People, said, “It’s frustrating to see what other states have done to improve their environmental amenities and opportunities. Iowa lags so far behind in public ownership of property in state parks, amenities within those state parks, things for people to do outdoor recreation wise.”
David Heiar, coordinator of the Grant Wood Loops region, seconds that notion. He says good parks can’t pay for themselves, and a good park system is a service people expect from government.
“I just don’t know how to really convince legislators and the current administration that these are resources they need to invest in,” Heiar said.
Reynolds, Senate Majority Leader Jake Chapman, R-Adel, and House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, did not respond to numerous emails and phone calls requesting their comments.
Advocates: Good parks boost economy, quality of life
The funding problems and failure to fill the Trust Fund came despite widespread agreement in official state reports that parks greatly contribute to Iowa’s economy and quality of life. With more funding, state tourism officials argue, the parks’ economic jolt would be impactful.
Outdoor recreation, which includes state parks and forests, generates more than $6.1 billion in annual consumer spending in Iowa while creating 75,000 jobs, $1.7 billion in wages and $433 million in state and local tax revenues, according to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.
A state study, prepared by the Reynolds administration, says the benefits are even greater – generating $8.7 billion in consumer spending, employing 83,000 Iowans, contributing $2.7 billion in wages and $649 million in in-state and local tax revenue. Those numbers come from the 2018 quinquennial update of Iowa’s Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP).
“Open spaces, parks and their accompanying outdoor recreation amenities are vitally important to Iowa’s economy,” the study said.
It’s not just about money
The parks are also an escape.
For Brittany Peters of Corydon, Iowa, state parks were a lifesaver during the COVID-19 pandemic. She and 220 other users belong to the Facebook group “Love of Iowa State Parks.”
“I have three young kids, and we needed to get outside for fresh air as soon as weather permitted. It was rejuvenating to be kayaking Iowa’s waters and refreshing to hike into our lush green, forested parks,” Peters said. “During a time when it wasn’t safe to explore the greater world, Iowa’s parks provided a safe place to explore and learn about our home state.”
People like Peters have been flocking to Iowa’s parks for the past 10 years. According to state data, the numbers of visitors have ranged from 13.7 and 15.5 million annually over the past decade.
Amy Ziegler, the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s tourism manager, says the pandemic has reinforced the importance of state parks.
“I think especially in the last year the pandemic has shown us outdoor recreation opportunities are absolutely critical, not just from a travel and tourism perspective, but also from a quality-of-life perspective,” Ziegler said. “It has really given us that opportunity to get out and about when there wasn’t a whole lot we could do. Anecdotally, we can absolutely see the benefit of a community being near a state park.”
For any community near a state park, an increase in visitation brings economic stimulation.
“If you’re going to a park, you’re spending money at a minimum [… .] There’s certainly an economic benefit there,” Ziegler said. Park visitors will buy gas, eat at restaurants, shop, go to museums and local attractions, she said.
Todd Coffelt, chief of DNR’s Parks, Forests and Preserves Bureau, emphasizes that impact, and he sees a unity between state parks and surrounding communities.
“That park is part of that community, and that community is part of that park,” he said.
Coffelt said DNR must address the gap between park resources and increased usage, and hiring seasonal instead of full-time staff has helped some. The park has about 330 seasonal staff for its 67 parks and four state forests.
Coffelt said lawmakers gave $2 million to the DNR in 2018 to prepare state parks for the 2020 centennial; it was used for deferred maintenance, repair, renovation, and other capital expenses.
Though Coffelt says the DNR successfully manages park maintenance within budget limits, he feels the public plays a role in the quest for more sustainable funding.
“The challenge … is we don’t get as much money as we could spend on deferred maintenance and renovation, and that will continue to be a balance …,” Coffelt said. “It’s about communicating. Sharing that with the public and letting them be the voice to legislators who make the budget.”
Iowa Parks Foundation President Joe Gunderson also emphasizes the public’s vital role. He believes a key to sustaining Iowa’s parks system is working from the ground up – focusing on communication and cooperation among locals rather than state government involvement.
“One of the things that attracted me to Parks to People was that it’s all bottom-up and vocally driven,” Gunderson said. “It takes the communication of personalities in these regions to really make it work.”
Public backs IWILL; state says it won’t
The Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund is commonly referred to as the Iowa Water and Land Legacy, or IWILL. It’s one of several legislative and executive proposals for creating sustainable funding for the parks system.
A bipartisan panel of legislators and stakeholders proposed IWILL in 2006. After nearly three years of meetings and research, it proposed the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund and stipulated three-eighths of a cent of sales tax hikes go to it. The committee’s research estimated a sustainable total of $150 million annually over base funding is needed for Iowa’s conservation and natural resources, including state parks.
Iowa Code (Chapter 461) dictates the increased sales tax would not be used to fund existing programs. Instead, it would be distributed into areas like lake restoration, trail construction, soil conservation and watershed protection, local conservation partnership programs, the Resource Enhancement and Protection Program (REAP) and DNR.
Although 63 percent of Iowa voters ratified IWILL through the constitutional amendment in 2010, lawmakers have yet to pass a sales tax increase, leaving the Trust Fund empty.
“IWILL is just absolutely critical,” Boddy, the former DNR deputy director, said.
Tourism leader: Knowing what you don’t know is key
Ziegler, the state tourism manager, believes more funding would help boost tourism through increased marketing.
“People don’t know what they don’t know,” she said, “and it takes funding to tell them about these outdoor recreation opportunities.”
State Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-Clinton, chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee, supports IWILL but says passing a tax increase is the biggest roadblock in funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.
“I don’t think when it was passed on the ballot, that there was enough connection with a tax increase for sure,” Mommsen said.
Coffelt, while acknowledging tax hikes are difficult, emphasized that IWILL won tremendous popular support. He urged the state government to respond to that support.
“The people have spoken, and the people are waiting,” he said. “This government has to get into the position where it’s ready. Because of the budget, there’s not more money. If you take from somewhere and give to somewhere, then something’s going to suffer. It’s a tough mission to balance that out.”
In January 2020, Reynolds introduced the Invest in Iowa Act. Adjusting the original IWILL formula, the act proposed a one-cent sales tax hike for the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. It also sought to create sustainable funding for mental health programs.
The tax increase would have been offset by income and property tax cuts and was estimated to bring in $540 million, with about $171 million going into IWILL’s Trust Fund annually. The proposal, however, has been shelved; it faces bipartisan opposition. Reynolds sidelined it due to the pandemic’s effect on the economy and employment.
Democrat lawmakers say the act is a regressive tax increase, while Republicans fear the increase would make Iowa less economically competitive with low-sales-tax states.
Nevertheless, park advocates say the tax is must, and Iowa voters have said they want it.
“The first thing they [Iowa legislators] need to do is get that sales tax increase to enact IWILL,” Kourousis said. “I mean, citizens spoke, and the majority was in favor of that. … That would take care of a lot of the funding.”
Anna Gray, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation’s public policy director, hopes the influx of park users in the pandemic reinforces the dire need to fill the fund and sustain outdoor recreation.
“We’re seeing more people rediscover Iowa in our state parks, wanting more of them and wanting the ones that we have cared for,” Gray said.
“That makes me really optimistic that people will be re-energized to talk with their legislators, and legislators will see what value those amenities bring to their communities and the economic development opportunity they present.”
The heritage foundation, a nonprofit focused on protecting and preserving Iowa’s land, water, and wildlife, has been pushing lawmakers and the governor’s office to enact the sales tax.
Gray feels funding the Trust Fund is essential to Iowa’s quality of life.
“We have a lot of great natural resources in Iowa that just need to be cared for,” she said. “As we look at making Iowa a place the next generation wants to live and work, the quality-of-life amenities like trails and parks are things important to those demographics.”
Parks To People touts regionalism, connecting parks
Despite funding difficulties and the lack of an official strategic plan for parks, Iowa’s state parks are not without a visionary direction.
That vision comes from the Iowa Parks Foundation’s 2014 “Parks to People” plan. It’s the product of former Gov. Branstad’s initiative, the study’s introductory section says.
“He appointed the Green Ribbon Commission to work in tandem with the Iowa Parks Foundation, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and many others to craft an inspiring plan for the next century – based on achievable, affordable, practical means,” it said.
In 2014, Branstad expressed support for the plan and its potential when its first region – Grant Wood – was announced.
“This region will lead the state and show us what is possible with this kind of public and private partnership,” he was quoted as saying then. “If this is done well and done right, we will see support for this in future years” in the Iowa Legislature
The plan’s regional approach to park planning would be financed with state and private sources. Under the proposal, Iowa counties looking to become a Parks to People region would “self-select” and merge after assessing their natural and financial resources. Each region would submit a strategic plan to the IPF; after selection by an IPF steering committee, the new region would receive a state grant of $1.9 million.
Every dollar from the state must be matched with $5 from local and private resources.
Coffelt says the three regions have been successful.
“It caused people to come to the table, put down the walls and have the conversation on how they could work together,” he said. “The key to that is public-private partnerships; they were able to bring in third parties that wanted to be a part of it [Parks to People]. The community reflects the priorities, and they know what they can do with what they have.”
The three regions established are: the Glacial Lakes Region in northwest Iowa, the Grant Wood Loop in eastern Iowa and the Loess Hills Region in western Iowa. All contain their own individual strategic plans and project lists.
IPF president and former Green Ribbon Commission co-chair Gunderson is unsure why so few counties have joined forces with the IPF. He thinks factors like county demographics and geography may play a part.
For example, the IPF’s regional formula may work best where small rural counties surround a mid-sized city.
Nevertheless, the regions exemplify how a Parks to People program benefits Iowans who use their parks.
Projects in the regions show how locals can succeed
A core goal of Parks to People was to establish a collaboration of parks leaders at all levels, strengthening the partnership between state parks, county conservation systems and parks, private landowners, and local entities.
The regional concept is key in the plan.
Consider the Glacial Lakes Region.
That’s where Kourousis directs the largest region under Parks to People. It envelopes six counties: Buena Vista, Clay, Dickinson, Emmet, O’Brien and Palo Alto counties.
“I think the Iowa Parks Foundation saw that approach and said if we can get these groups to start thinking larger than just themselves, maybe we can develop projects and attractions that would appeal to folks on a larger scale,” Kourousis said.
Although problems getting private matching funds pose limitations, Kourousis says he is happy with the progress of a few key developments, like Trumpeter Trail.
“Our region has many interconnected wetlands,” he said. “There’s quite a few folks who like to paddle these days, and that [Trumpeter Trail] opened those areas for their use as we’re trying our best to make our area more attractive and show the benefits to a wider range of folks.”
In the Grant Wood Loop Region, $52 million has been spent for over 70 individual projects across its three-county region of Jackson, Jones and Dubuque since the end of its pilot phase in 2018. Assistant Program Director Nicolas Hockenberry said his region secured approximately $7.6 million from various state programs.
Project coordinator David Heiar said the Grant Wood Loop has prioritized county parks, making little progress in the region’s state parks. The focus of interconnecting county parks to the communities surrounding them still stands.
Despite making steady progress in their respective regions, limited resources hamper development.
“There’s just not enough funding right now to do all of the natural space and recreational stuff that we could do,” Michelle Franks, executive director of Loess Hills Region, said. “I think we’ve just always worked with what we have access to.”
The Loess Hills Region, comprised of Harrison, Mills and Pottawattamie counties, has $5,296,602 from the state and $4,187,883 from private sources.
One project lingering for Loess Hills envisions building nature centers in each of its three county parks; it’s been unable to complete the projects because of funding constraints.
Loess Hills is also working on multiple trail projects.
“Building trails takes forever; they’re expensive, but they’re wonderful when built,” she said.
The deliberations on state park funding usually circle back to IWILL. In 2020, The Natural Resource Commission’s annual legislative report urged raising the sales tax for the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.
Minnesota, one of Iowa’s neighboring states with a trust fund similar to IWILL, has approved three constitutional amendments funding conservation. Its sales tax increase, circa 2008, is estimated to generate $5.5 billion over 25 years.
Lamenting how Iowa falls short of other states’ park funding, Kourousis said: “We need to worry about some of our natural areas and devote some funding to those, not only because of the increase in tourism and dollars that could come into the state, but because of the natural benefits of helping the environment as well.”
One non-tax measure the legislature has used to aid in funding outdoor recreation is dynamic pricing. It allows the DNR, which keeps all its fees, to raise and lower their registration prices and activity fees among parks. When the demand for a park is high, the DNR can raise its fees.
“It’s as simple as supply and demand,” said Mommsen, the House subcommittee chairman. DNR implemented dynamic pricing Jan. 1. A report is due to the legislature next session.
A change in ideology surrounding how government functions in relation to natural resources and outdoor recreation may help shift needed momentum, according to Robert Riley, CEO of Riley Resource Group. He co-chaired Branstad’s Green Ribbon Commission and was instrumental in initial efforts leading to Parks to People.
“The motto that was coined some time ago was to shrink the government to the point where you can drown it in a bathtub, and I think that is the mantra of the current trifecta,” said Riley of Republicans in charge of the Iowa House, Senate and governor’s office.
“They have not decided to embrace the concept of government as a service, they see government as a burden … until that changes, nothing will change.”
Stephen J. Berry, co-founder of IowaWatch, contributed to this story. Olivia Allen is a Simpson College senior studying journalism. She worked for IowaWatch in the summer of 2021 on the Iowa State Parks project. Allen is a native Iowan and also a member of the Simpson softball team.