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Iowan's Won't Give up on the Natural World

May 12, 2010
Catherine Zeman
Des Moines Register
February 13, 2001

Catherine Zeman, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health and Director of the Recycling Reuse Technology Transfer Center

Having read Dr. Ed Brown's OpEd piece on clean water in Iowa, I feel compelled to respond with a little less iconoclastic view of Iowans' commitment to clean water and, perhaps, a bit more analysis as to why Iowa faces the sometimes serious water quality issues it faces.

Firstly, Iowa has just emerged from a Century and half of serious environmental conversion and upheaval. Iowa's rich prairie lands were one of the obvious choices for an emerging industrial agricultural enterprise of the 1800 -1900s. The nature of industrial agriculture leaves sometimes bare and sometimes fallow the soils of Iowa to wind and water erosion, creating a much greater challenge for controlling sedimentation and run-off than one encounters in the naturally nutrient poor or oligotrophic lakes of Northern Minnesota, where outdoor recreation is one of the primary industries. Thus, a comparison of lakes in Iowa and lakes in Minnesota and of the circumstances of the surrounding countryside - is like comparing apples to oranges. That is not to say that the farming practices of Iowa have not had a very significant impact on the nutrient enrichment of IowaÍs rivers, lakes, and streams. With an average of eight tons of soil lost per acre per year a serious situation exists which needs to be constantly addressed and tended, with that I agree.

However, compare the quality of many of Iowa's waterways today to the quality of those waterways when one of Iowa's early conservationists, Dr. Thomas Macbride, Professor and Naturalist of the University of Iowa began to call for serious conservation efforts in the mid to late 1800's, a time during which many of the lakes and rivers in Iowa were truly open sewers. An excellent source of information on the Natural History of Iowa is the beautifully done text, Iowa - Portrait of the Land written by Iowa Department of Natural Resources Staff with an introduction by then Director of the Department, Paul Johnson, the writers note that raw sewage was, in the early years of Iowa's agricultural and industrial development, directly discharged into waterways around Iowa's large cities, a practice which early conservationists stopped and worked very hard to correct. Many of the early conservationists had seen the drastic changes IowaÍs landscape had experienced in the mid 1800's to early 1900's and worked to change it. In the 1930's, Aldo Leopold the world renowned conservationist, naturalist, and nature writer helped to draft the first conservation plan for Iowa that specifically addressed the concerns of soil erosion and water quality. This plan was commissioned and encouraged by the Iowa legislature and started Iowa's journey of preservation, conservation, and restoration which continues today.

Are Iowan's ready to give-up on the natural world around them and retreat to computers and theme parks? Having moved to Iowa from Illinois a little less than nine years ago, I can attest to the forward thinking programs and initiatives I found in place in Iowa, particularly in the area of water quality, agriculture, and solid waste. It is a testament to the legislators, natural resource employees, and natural scientists of all specializations that conceived of and carried out the Ground Water Protection Act of the late 1980's that so much has been done as a result including the creation of Nationally and Internationally recognized Centers of research and education in the interrelated areas of agriculture, solid and hazardous waste, and human health as they impact and are impacted by water quality. Yes there have been real, substantial losses, but Iowa is working to reverse those and planning to do more. As Iowa -Portrait of the Land states, "...100 preserves protect 5,000 acres of prairie..., 10,000 acres of wetlands are being reclaimed....., (and, in), ...1974, only 1.5 million acres of woodlands remained in Iowa. Since then, our forests have rebounded to about 2.1 million acres...." Consider also the work of volunteer and not for profit organizations outside of the Iowa State Government such as the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which has since the late 1970's worked to conserve, protect, and restore numerous natural areas in Iowa such as the loess hills, various wetland areas, and prairie lands. This spirit of conservation and land ethic is also part of IowaÍs natural heritage and the "wealth" and test of its peoples' character.

Thus, rather than be discouraged by the resignation of the Director of Natural Resources, I ask IowanÍs to consider it not as the resignation of an individual in frustration, nor as an omen of the loss of Iowa's natural areas and history, but rather, as a call for new champions and new ideas to come forward. Let us see both the opportunities and the challenges for Iowa in a world where all men and women of good intention and love for the land will continue to envision and build a sustainable society in harmony with the natural world.