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Discussion of Iowa's Natural Heritage

posted on October 8, 2009 at 7:37 PM

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Yeager: So how does Iowa adapt and change to protect that which provides such a bounty for us all in all sorts of ways? That's what we'll be discussing tonight with our guests.

Joining me in the studio are Pat Boddy, she is Deputy Director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and has worked for 25 years in the fields of water resources, parks and land management and communications. Chuck Gipp joined the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship in July 2008. He is Director of the Division of Soil Conservation and is a former state representative and majority leader of the Iowa House. Former Congressman Neal Smith served Iowa for 36 years in the U.S. House. He championed both agriculture and the environment during his tenure. The National Wildlife Refuge at Prairie City is named for him as is the federal building in Des Moines. We also have two more people joining us via the ICN. At the University of Iowa, ecologist Connie Mutel has written Fragile Giants about Iowa's Loess Hills and The Emerald Horizon, the History of Nature in Iowa. She is a Historian and Archivist in the College of Engineering's IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering. And in the ICN room at Western Community College in Council Bluffs is Chad Graeve. Chad is the natural resource specialist at the Hitchcock Nature Center near the community of Honey Creek. He also works with private landowners on stewardship issues. Welcome to you all. Good to have you here in studio and on the ICN.

Yeager: Pat, I want to start with you. First let's do some defining of terms. It's always good to know where we're jumping off. We talk about preserving and conserving. In one way they sound the same but what is the difference between the two?

Boddy: Well, to preserve is to keep something as it has been. To conserve is to make sure that you do your level best to make sure it does not degrade or go away. So, preserving and conserving are very much in sync, they work together but they are a little bit different. You can conserve something and yet not really preserve it.

Yeager: Congressman, do you agree with the way you put those two words together?

Smith: Well, you can preserve something almost overnight if it hasn't been upset before or the balance of nature hasn't been ruined before you can do it almost overnight but to restore something is a long proposition. The refuge you mentioned has been 19 years so far and it is not restored, it is partially restored and it will be another long time before it is fully restored.

Yeager: All right, Connie, I want to ask you the same question. I want to bring you into this discussion as well. Do you agree with the way we have been defining these terms?

Mutel: Yes, I do. I think that those are good takes on the terms. I think you can also look at it in terms of how people have approached nature over time and if you look at the natural areas movement back in the 1970s when we really started to talk about conservation we thought that we could just lock away nature and preserve it by putting a fence around it. What we've learned since then is that natural ecosystems will degrade if they don't have the pressures placed on them that both people and other forces have placed on them over time. So, instead of preservation now we do talk about restoration just as Congressman Smith discussed, the idea of people working with nature to get the natural processes and functions and maintain the native biodiversity.

Yeager: All right, Chad, I want to get you in the conversation but I want to talk just a little different point here. When we talk about each one of these are we talking more about the parks and preserves or the changing agriculture and the way we build roads and the plants in our yards?

Graeve: I think too many time we have kind of separated conservation from the human realm and I think it has to be integrated into everything we do, agriculture, urban areas, parks, preserves, whatever it might be.

Yeager: Chuck, same question when it comes to agriculture, how does agriculture play in this discussion?

Gipp: Well, let's go back to the two terms conservation and preservation. Those are good terms but you also have to allow people to use those natural resources. Conservation and preservation doesn't mean you can't use them. I think conservation means you have to make sure that they are there for continual use. We are blessed with many natural resources but we also need to use them because people live and work here and they need to have the enjoyment in them. So, uses also should be incorporated in those terms.

Boddy: I was just going to say it clearly depends on the use. Certainly there are uses that would still allow you to preserve a special place but there are uses that would maybe not allow you to do so. So, you do have to be a little bit careful and balanced. We often talk about really walking gently on the landscape and certainly we want to be able to invite people in to public areas and make sure they are recreating and appreciating and stewarding but not all uses are created equally.

Gipp: The term abuse has to come in to conservation areas and I think that is what Pat was saying is that we can use them, we are in agreement with that, but you don't want to abuse it. If you're going to abuse it it's not going to be there for generations after we are long since gone.

Yeager: When you use the word abuse who are you pointing at when you discuss those who might be abusing?

Gipp: That's anybody that walks on the face of the Earth and goes into these sensitive areas or even our production areas. You are charged with a stewardship, I think that term has to come into play too, we are stewards of this Earth and the natural resources. That doesn't mean we can't use them but I don't think we are allowed to or should abuse them.

Yeager: Connie, I want to ask you about biodiversity and sustainability. How important when we talk about biodiversity is it in what we do and why?

Mutel: Okay, I just wanted to add one small point to the previous discussion too. I think it's a matter of balance as well as use versus careful use. In Iowa we have used our resources, so many of our resources so intensively that we haven't left much for native species and those are the species that have lived here for thousands of years. So, your question, biodiversity and sustainability. It's totally important. If you think about sustainability, I define sustainability as the ability of a species to live into the future and that applies to humans as well as to the native species. In Iowa we have severe declines of many of our native species now, those that did live sustainably in the woodlands and the prairies for thousands of year we're now seeing slow, steady declines and facing the possibility of their disappearance from Iowa. The way that you get a sustainable landscape is to foster biodiversity so that nature can continue to foster all of life. We humans as well as all of the other species in Iowa are dependent on nature to filter our water, to help us moderate floods, to farm new soil and the like. They are intimately connected.

Yeager: Very good, Connie, thank you.

Smith: I want to point out that we resort to agriculture when we have upset the balance of nature. We don't have a balance of nature, that's the reason we're involved in agriculture. We have more humans than we have other species for our balance and that is the reason we have agriculture and you can't sustain having more humans than you have other species unless you resort to something like agriculture and we're not sustainable and we're not going to be sustainable with this number of humans in Iowa or in the nation because what we're doing is we're drawing from reserves that were put there millions of years ago, the fertilizer with oil and things like that to try to supplement. We're not sustainable and we're not going to be sustainable. I was in New Guinea for eight months, it is sustainable there. They're not drawing on any reserves, it's sustainable with the natives there. We're not going to have that.

Yeager: Because that ship has already sailed?

Smith: It's already sailed but nature fights back and eventually nature wins. I don't know if it's going to be next year or a million years from now but nature wins eventually. There will be a tsunami of some kind, there will be a disease that mutates from the animals we depend upon to live back and forth, there will be something happen that nature eventually wins.

Yeager: So, Chuck, do we need to get plane reservations and move everybody to New Guinea? What do we do?

Gipp: I don't believe so, I believe that Iowa is, as a lot of people know, blessed with 25% of the world's class A soils which Congressman Smith indicated that Iowa can't sustain Iowa. Iowa can sustain Iowa but Iowa is being asked to sustain a whole lot of other populations outside of the state's borders because we have that precious resource. If we're going to be able to do this on into the future we're going to have to be very cognoscente and that's where the preservation, the conservation and stewardship has to come into play so that it is sustainable to be able to use resources we are blessed with in Iowa to be able to provide that foodstuffs for people that are no longer on our borders.

Smith: We're not nearly sustainable because we're drawing on oil, we're drawing on fertilizers to increase the production per acre in order to do that. So, we're borrowing from the reserves that we have.

Yeager: Chad, what do you think of this discussion we're having now? Do you agree with what has been said?

Graeve: I think they're hitting on some really key points. I really like what I hear coming from Congressman Smith. We truly are drawing on the products of the past. We look at the soils in Iowa that this great agricultural system is based on and they were developed by the native plants that Connie is talking about over eons. In many respects we are depleting those soils and we in the agricultural system now are taking great steps to try to conserve soil and recognizing the value of that. I think the next step is going to be to recognize what we're doing to our water resources and how we have impacted the hydrology in the state and we're facing a very similar situation there.

Yeager: I think we're going to get to that but I want to ask both Pat and Chuck this question. It almost sounds like sometimes the farmer gets put on the peg of they are the fault or they are the reason. Should they be getting all the blame in this discussion?

Boddy: Absolutely not, what we have are a lot of farmers who do a great job of trying to conserve the soil resources and the water resources but just like in any operation there are some folks who don't do as well as others and I think kind of the thing we need to think about too here is we have evolved into a certain form of agriculture. More than two-thirds of this state is in row crop production and I'm not blasting row crop production by any means but we have seen externalities or impacts based on that row crop production that are not, as everyone is pointing out here, sustainable over time. So, at some point we have to take a good hard look at agriculture if we're going to farm this state, how best to farm it so that we can do it in a way that is both environmentally and economically sustainable for the Iowa farmer and ultimately for all Iowans.

Yeager: Connie, I hear you wanting to chime in on this one?

Mutel: Yes, I like also what I'm hearing here and I think that there are mechanisms in place that are being put in place right now. The problem is that we now have federal subsidies that push farmers to emphasize the production of row crops and that means that we don't have perennial cover on the ground and what we have learned from the prairie, if we looked at the prairie and tried to copy the prairie and copy its sustainability what we learn is that we can't have two-thirds of Iowa covered with perennial plants that only cover the ground a few months of the year. We need perennial cover. We do have programs in place now such as the Conservation Stewardship Program. If that were to get full funding and more implementation that would pay farmers for green environmental activities rather than for producing commodities. And I'd like to interject also that we're not feeding people right now, actually we're producing row crops that feed cattle. So, I think that we could indeed do some readjusting of the balances.

Yeager: Which does feed animals, which does feed people but, Chuck, how do you ask a farmer right now to take any land out of production when prices are low, especially hogs and cattle? I know that is supply and demand, you take that out. But how do you ask a farmer in a tough economic situation to say, you know what, just stop producing?

Gipp: Well, it's very difficult to ask that farmer to do that. One, he is being asked to provide the foodstuffs for a growing population worldwide, not just here in Iowa. But at the same time there are expenses that come with that farming operation that you have to continue to pay. Whether you grow one bushel of corn or not doesn't mean that the property tax payment is going to stop or your consumption of energy just to support your family, the cost of your housing, the cost of your real estate, all of those costs continue to go up. So, the farmers are caught in that quandary of being able to survive as a business. But the point that has to be made is that you may survive one or two years but you have to survive for generations and that is where the conservation and preservation has to come into play to make sure that whatever you're doing is sustainable over the long haul and not just looking at the short term gain. That is, in fact, what the Division of Soil Conservation does, we may be part of the Department of Agriculture but we provide the education, the technical assistance and the financial support to get farmers to be more conservation minded and stewardship minded and assist them to make those decisions.

Smith: I want to point out that we've got to do a better job of recognizing that different soils should be treated differently. We try to treat all soils the same too much of the time. Some of the soil could be in corn and soybeans year after year after year but even this carbon bill they're talking about, they talk as if the carbon is how much you use per acre, it's not per acre, it's per bushel of corn.

Yeager: I want to ask you a couple of points, though. From your time in Congress to your time out how have things changed in the federal government in relationship with policies whether it is cap and trade that you're talking about or changes in the farm bills that are aiding in this discussion that we're having?

Smith: Well, from 1985 to 1996 we had a program where you didn't really have the subsidies, what you were doing is you had a way of meeting the market demands, helping to meet the market demands. In '96 they changed the law so that now you have subsidies and that is hard to balance things out when you have subsidies because they want the subsidies applied per acre and these things that I just mentioned.

Gipp: The result of that that farm program is they have virtually made it more lucrative to grow corn and soybeans than it is to stay home and have dairy cattle and cattle that cause grass to be grown on some of these same landscapes. So, we have lost our grass acres and it went into soybeans. Corn acres are about the same as they always have but we have lost the grass acres and that perennial crop.

Smith: The other thing is I want to point out is they talk about well, you should have no till. Well, no till is wonderful on some soils but on other soils you'll get a higher cost per bushel if you use no till.

Yeager: I want to move from the farm to the urban because the urban doesn't get off the hook on this one. Pat, I want to ask you, and Chad and also Connie to chime in on this. You commented, I remember a couple of those times, those beautiful pictures from the Loess Hills and just how beautiful it was but yet there's housing developments in some of these areas. Where does that play -- housing doesn't usually get along with nature so what do we need to do when we're developing houses?

Boddy: You hit some great examples there of what we've been trying to talk about for a long time which is basically conservation design, conservation development, low impact development, smart growth, there's all kinds of terminology. But it really relates to not making dramatic changes in the landscape but, in fact, making the architecture and the processes and systems that are in place fit into that landscape. That means new ways, actually kind of old ways of managing storm water and basically it means that the developers and the people living in those homes are going to take real responsibility, personal responsibility for the water that lands on that landscape and how they will manage it. And so it's possible to do this but, again, not all soils are created equal and certainly there would be some areas, certainly steep slopes, there are all kinds of parameters where you would probably want to leave it untouched. We haven't necessarily identified all of those in the past. But you can have some environmentally sensitive building practices that are not as ramped as they ought to be.

Yeager: Connie, I think you wanted to talk about this one as well. Where do you go with permeable -- do permeable driveways work everywhere?

Mutel: I guess I'm not the expert on those although I know they are excellent and I think that those infiltration techniques are good. I think there are other things that people can do in urban areas. One is to be very aware of invasive, potentially invasive species that they introduce. Often times we get gardeners bringing plants into cities that then escape into nearby wildlands and become very destructive and I think that a lot of the destruction I know here in Iowa City now is taking place because of people wanting to live on large acreages in some of the remaining wild areas that are near towns and I think we have to be very careful about that especially since we have so little of nature left in Iowa, just a fraction of a percent left.

Smith: I want to point out when I see an urban area what I think of first is there's children living there and not having an opportunity to see that we are just one of the species.

Yeager: Children living where?

Smith: In the urban area, they don't have the opportunity we used to have and we didn't used to have a full opportunity or use it. But they need to be able to get out there where the species are in a balanced ecosystem and just be there silently and listen except for the noises that the species make and begin to understand that they are just one of the species and how much we depend upon one another and we're all both a dominant species and a subspecies and they need to understand that. But these children in urban areas we don't have enough place for them to go to understand this.

Yeager: Chad, how do you get the kids that the Congressman is talking about who live in these urban areas and educate them whether it is permeable driveways or ways that their neighborhood is not helping the environment?

Graeve: Well, I think the Congressman touches on a really important point, children today are very disconnected from the land, they don't have the same opportunities that I had when I was a child or that my folks had when they were young. So, we're very disconnected and we're losing that understanding of the landscape. I think there's two really strong approaches to trying to restore that. One is protect as many areas as we can and offer opportunities for them to get out to those areas whether it be a field trip or a Saturday afternoon with their family or what have you. The other is to try to integrate natural areas back into our urban environments. That is going to help with hydrology, that's going to help with reconnecting them with these natural areas, giving them opportunities for entertainment out of doors, away from outlets, lots of different things I think that we can do.

Yeager: You've gotten some excitement here in the studio, Chad.

Boddy: I was just going to say that's the basic conservation design principles that we've just been talking about. I put a rain garden in my backyard and by rain garden I mean it's somewhat depressed and it collects rain off the roof and put native plants in it. I have fourteen to eighteen Monarch butterflies in my backyard in August on a daily basis. So, people start to hang out and gather and find out things and learn and I live in an urban area. We can in small pockets try to do something but I'd also like to mention that we do have 85 state parks, we have county parks in every county and we have urban parks and our parks are a key piece of reconnecting people with the landscape as well.

Gipp: One of the things that is a result of the 2008 floods is that I think Iowans realize more now than they did prior to that, that whatever is upstream impacts downstream. So, it's not just the cities looking upstream, the agricultural property but it's also the surface in the cities which continue to make more impervious through roofs and parking lots and streets. We need to also control the rainwater that falls on those surfaces instead of quickly funneling it in the storm sewer to become downstream problems. So, that is exactly why it is that we've got to make this a systems approach and look in the urban as well as the rural areas and how we can kill rainwater where it falls rather than allow it to be somebody else's problem downstream.

Yeager: All right, Chad, I know we talked about the driveways before but we haven't really gotten into chemicals on the lawn. I know that there's always that -- I know my father has always said well, you in town put more damage on your lawn with your fertilizer than I do on the farm. Is that true? How do we prevent that information from being spread?

Graeve: I certainly think it is true. Lawns are certainly less porous than the biological communities that were on the landscape historically so you don't get the infiltration of the water and then we're constantly putting nutrients on them to keep that grass growing, it's not a native grass, it doesn't grow well in these soils so lawns can be a very big problem and in order to correct that it would take a massive restructuring of the way we look at urban areas and what we think is aesthetically pleasing.

Boddy: He's exactly right about that. Trying to change people's aesthetic is a very challenging issue. We have discovered, though, that if you take, for example, an opportunity to reconstruct some prairie pieces in urban areas and border it with more traditional plantings, what some have called cues for care, people will recognize that what is in between the traditional plantings aren't weeds. So, Des Moines has been doing this very successfully with their parks system. I know that many of the county conservation and state parks have been reintroducing prairie restoration efforts and it's starting to work. People are starting to make a shift but it takes a while.

Smith: You start with children. We've got Browns Woods out here, it's not even second growth woods, 500 acres is set aside that is hardly used at all. There is a little trail through it, some of these kids need to go out there and just walk quietly down there and sit down quietly in the woods.

Yeager: Connie, what do you have?

Mutel: Listening to the discussion I agree with all of the points that are being made. I also am feeling like we have such a tendency to think of ourselves and to think of areas as natural or manipulated and what we need to do is to simply give more to nature throughout the state, not just have parks and preserves limited but as Pat was saying reintegrate small lanteral areas into our yards, I've heard that some counties have urban natural areas that connect backyards throughout the county and have wildlife quarters throughout the county using people's backyards. And we also need to work with agriculture so that agriculture isn't pitted against nature the way it is now with our farms getting larger and more going to row crops, more intensive farming. I think what we need to do is to reintegrate native species so that those species then can start to work with nature to make a more sustainable and a healthier Iowa.

Yeager: Connie, thank you very much. Mr. Gipp, I need to ask you to go back to when you were in the house and imagine you get the news like you did today, 10% across-the-board budget cuts in every department but yet these things sound so good and need to be done so quickly. How does a legislative body or an executive body put into place some of these actions that we're talking about?

Gipp: Well, if we're serious about sustainability and if we're serious about preservation and conservation sustainability you're going to have to put resources towards accomplishing that. Pat mentioned aesthetically pleasing. Aesthetically pleasing is something that changes over time and so you have to educate people what aesthetically pleasing should be and what it needs to be. That's going to take people in order to provide educational program opportunities to go out and reach the populous and get those changes. It's going to take resources, it's going to take money and so the legislature is going to have a difficult time determining what the priorities for scarce resources are. When they are making these deliberations in the next few weeks they can't forget about natural resources, that you have to invest in them if you're going to have natural resources for future generations. We simply have to make that a priority.

Yeager: Pat, both you and Chuck, your departments are a part of that just like the other state departments so you're going to have a tough time trying to -- are you going to have a tough time holding ground without trying to gain some at the same time?

Boddy: Obviously with a 10% budget cut we're going to be challenged. One of the things though that we do have, we have a great cooperative relationship, we work together closely, Chuck and I see each other at least a couple, three times a week at some meeting so some of these things will be pulled together. One thing that is not expensive is to have a vision for where we want to be, that Connie started to outline for us and that we've all been sort of starting to talk about here today. If we can craft that really thoughtful vision for the proper balance in this state between our natural resources and our agricultural sectors and how we can work together to achieve those visions we'll find the resources to get it done.

Yeager: All right, Connie, I've got to put you on the spot here. How do you tell a lawmaker, short-sided, long-sided that you need to keep investing and look at the long-term?

Mutel: Well, I guess I'd say not can we afford to do it but can we afford not to do it because looking at the elimination of species and the more extreme weather events, more destructive events such as last year's floods that will occur if we don't get involved in preserving nature. It's going to be a lot cheaper to work with nature now. I think that I'd like to suggest that we make Iowa a model for restoring nature in agriculture. We can do it, we have the population and the education here. We can do it.

Yeager: All right, Connie, I appreciate it, both Connie and Chad Graeve are with us remotely and also Pat Boddy, Neal Smith and Chuck Gipp in the studio. Thank you so much. That's it for this expanded version of The Iowa Journal. Thanks to all of our guests and thanks to you for joining us. I encourage everyone to enjoy and protect Iowa's great natural heritage. There are lots of ways to do it. I also want to remind you to check out our Web site for links to conservation groups, government organizations, museums and more that were a part of this program. Next time we'll interview this year's World Food Prize Laureate. Until then, I'm Paul Yeager. Have a good week.

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Tags: conservation Iowa national parks nature parks preservation