As Iowa Runs Tourism Ads, Outdoor Rec Fund Remains Empty


By Nikoel Hytrek

October 12, 2021

A month ago, Gov. Kim Reynolds launched the first advertisement for her “This is Iowa” campaign meant to attract people to visit, live, and work in the state. Reynolds is using federal COVID-19 relief funds to air the ads.

The commercial shows lush landscapes, water recreation, and scenic shots of Iowa’s urban and rural areas. However, the image presented in the ad fails to convey the lack of political interest in preserving Iowa’s natural attractions.

In 2010, Iowans voted to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, a sustainable, ready pot of funding for conservation and natural development projects in Iowa. But despite being passed, the fund has never had money in it.

Reynolds’ push to draw people to Iowa would be the perfect time to bring it up again, said State Rep. Chris Hall, a Sioux City Democrat.

“We have a lot of beautiful countryside. We have wonderful parks and rivers. We have a reputation for hosting one of the United States’ best-known bike rides across Iowa and an interest in trails usage, and all of those things combine to make a landscape that’s attractive to young families,” he said.

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What Could Be

The trust fund would provide reliable money for projects that maintain and improve water quality, outdoor recreation opportunities, and wildlife habitats.

That includes building and maintaining trails, parks, and waterways while also establishing connections and purifying the water, according to Joe McGovern, president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

Some potential projects include a trail in Fremont County to connect one town to the bigger Wabash Trace Nature Trail, buying out farmland on the Missouri River floodplain that’s no longer good for planting but could be restored for wildlife, and repairing bridges on the Raccoon River Valley Trail.

McGovern said a particular focus would go toward projects that have multiple benefits.

“A wetland cleans the water, but it also provides habitat for wildlife recreational opportunities like canoeing, kayaking, hunting, fishing,” he said. “So any time we can spend a dollar to get multiple benefits that, to me, is the best way to spend public dollars.”

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What’s in the Way

The public money would come from a sales tax increase of 3/8 of a cent, and go into the fund to be distributed as needed.

However, that’s the main obstacle to funding the trust.

Because Republicans are focused now on cutting taxes, Hall said even a minor increase wouldn’t necessarily happen with the current leadership. But environmental groups have said they’re willing to negotiate other funding mechanisms, and Hall said Republicans should be open to those conversations if they’re serious about wanting to attract people to the state.

The projects would touch on Iowa’s culture, its natural resources, and recreation opportunities, which are all areas families have told the Iowa Economic Development Authority would make Iowa an attractive place to live.

“If Republicans are in the majority right now and their party’s governor has identified this as a need and a priority of her own, if it’s something that the business community has said they need in order to attract the next generation of workers, those are all strong arguments to be made for the investment itself,” Hall said.

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Ready to Go

Many projects are “shovel ready,” McGovern said. As soon as the money is available, projects would be underway.

“We’ll see immediate results, there’s no question we’ll see trails, parks, infrastructure, wetlands. The pace will pick up very quickly,” he said.

Those projects would be competitive too because the money would only go to projects that seem most likely to be successful.

“There’s so much demand,” McGovern said. “I mean, you’re talking 20, 30 million in demand in just a few million dollars available.”

Hall said if Reynolds gave the OK, Republicans in the Legislature would likely get on board to make it happen.

“It’s the governor choosing to make this a priority and really leading on it or incorporating it into the bigger tax reform conversation,” Hall said. “I think if Reynolds were to do that, the issue would have immediate momentum that it hasn’t.”

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In her press release announcing the “This is Iowa” ad— paid for in part with federal COVID-19 relief money—Reynolds said the initiative is meant to attract people to the state by highlighting Iowa’s natural resources, its cost of living and working, and the amenities in business sectors.

“The initiative supports state efforts to attract new residents and train existing workers to fill a growing number of high-demand job openings,” she said.

The outdoor recreation trust fund could help with all of that.



Nikoel Hytrek

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  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].

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