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Iowa's Natural Resources

posted on July 6, 2012

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Environmental emphasis.  Iowa's Department of Natural Resources, overseeing myriad issues from air quality to land stewardship, has a new boss.  A conversation with DNR Director Chuck Gipp on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Iowa's Department of Natural Resources in some way or another is either monitoring or regulating nearly everything keeping us alive and active from air and water quality to state parks, recreational trails, hunting and fishing, even monitoring and analyzing gasoline and other energy prices.  Chuck Gipp is the DNR's new director, moving into that responsibility about a month ago.  He is a dairy farmer from Decorah but no stranger to state government serving 17 years in the Iowa House of Representatives, some of that time leading House majority republicans and then supervising soil conservation programs in Iowa's Department of Agriculture and most recently as the DNR's deputy director before Governor Branstad appointed him director when Roger Lande resigned last month.  Mr. Gipp, welcome back to Iowa Press.  You've been here before as a state legislator.

Gipp: Thank you very much.  It's great to be back in this capacity.

Borg: And across the table I think a couple of reporters that you know, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Mr. Gipp, you're now the state's chief environmental regulator.  If you could give us a brief assessment of Iowa's environment and then explain what you think your role is as that regulator.

Gipp: Well, Iowa certainly has its challenges, like any other state, when it comes to the environment and our job as the regulator is to ensure that we are in compliance with all the federal environmental laws as well as the actions taken by the state legislature.  And I think that we will -- we take that responsibility very seriously.  How we do that I think is the nature of how we will lead the Department of Natural Resources.  I happen to think not only in this job but any other job that we have undertaken the best thing we can do as far as environmental regulations is help people understand what the rules are, get them in compliance and help them keep in compliance because the vast majority of the people across Iowa's landscape want to know what the rules are, want to be in compliance, want to be environmentally friendly in whatever they do and help them get compliance rather than being the entity that sits back, allows people to get out of compliance and then subject them to the fines.

Henderson: So you see yourself as a teacher rather than a policeman?

Gipp: We see -- we see us having to be both roles.  I think it's very -- it would be very instrumental for environmental protection if we help people get in compliance.  At the same time if we have somebody that is a chronic violator of environmental regulations that we get on them severely because in my past experience as a legislator I know the vast majority of the rules and regulations and laws that are passed are to get at that chronic violator, the person that ignores that laws, the one that is not obeying the law out there and the impact of that is that those new stringent laws and regulations impact the person that always follows the laws and rules.  So get at the chronic violator, at the same time be beneficial to the person that needs to know and wants to know what the regulations are.

Obradovich: A lot of your fellow republicans think that environmental regulations are job killers.  Do you agree with that assessment at all?  And if so, which is the most egregious?

Gipp: Well, you need to understand first and foremost -- and I think this is something that the people don't understand and need to be reminded when it comes to the EPA as well as the Department of Natural Resources -- we do not make the laws.  We do not make the regulations.  Congress passed the Clean Air Act, Congress passed the Clean Water Act and in doing so they also mandated the EPA and the DNR enforce the provisions of that.  So we are put in a situation or forcing regulations that we didn't necessarily pass and we will do that because we're charged to do that by the legislative body.  So when it come to job creation, once again, the Governor has the goal to create jobs, make a much more environmentally friendly atmosphere for business to locate in Iowa and to stay in Iowa and we can do that by helping them get in compliance, making sure they stay in compliance rather than do the gotcha type of attitude afterwards.

Obradovich: But are there regulations in Iowa where either because of the way the regulation is written or through enforcement that they have become overly burdensome for businesses?

Gipp: There may be but in the short term that I've been there let me tell you that we can be very helpful in getting people to get in compliance.  I've been across Iowa and across the nation now in a collaborative effort with the Department of Economic Development in my previous capacity as deputy director where we actually went along with Debi Durham to recruitment opportunities and it was important to do so because when you're recruiting a business, for example, they want to know what the requirement is going to be to locate in Iowa and what the enforcement action is going to be.  So when I went along on a couple of these recruitment trips, when Debi Durham introduces the fact that you have the deputy director, the Department of Natural Resources as the regulatory body which they're going to have to apply for flood plain permits and construction permits, air quality permits, wastewater permits, water withdrawal permits they immediately turned to look at me, say what a great idea that we have the regulatory body and somebody representing that here today and helping recruit businesses.

Borg: But there's a reason for all of those things.

Gipp: Absolutely.

Borg: So what is the biggest threat to Iowa's environment that you see?

Gipp: The biggest threat basically I think is that if you're going to enjoy the outside, if you're going to enjoy being outdoors, Dean, do you need to have quality water and quality air to do so?  The other part of our agency provides for outdoor activities whether it be hunting, fishing, biking and those types of things.  In order for you to enjoy that outdoor activity you have to have clean water to swim in --

Borg: So where do we stand in all of that? What is the biggest threat right now to that utopia?

Gipp: The utopia is water.  We as a state have our landscape used more than anybody and altered more than any other state in the nation and that is a good thing because we are also responsible for providing the foodstuffs for people across the nation. So we're a very well used landscape across Iowa which provides for environmental challenges.  We think that we can have both.  And if we help people get in compliance with conservation and water quality improvement practices that we can have both.  And so the challenge is getting collaboration and partnerships with local governments, with local people to help invest in the practices needed to improve water quality across the state.

Borg: The one thing that keeps you awake at night though?

Gipp: The one thing that keeps me awake at night, with my seniority and the things I've been subject to I don't, there's not too much that actually keeps me awake at night anymore.

Henderson: Mr. Gipp, I'd like to aim a few questions about lead shot your way and dove hunting. 

Gipp: Sure.

Henderson: As you recall the Natural Resources Commission, which is part of your agency, a governing body, voted to ban lead shot when people are hunting doves.  The Governor used his executive authority to allow dove hunters to use lead shot.  Do you think lead shot poses an environmental hazard to the environment?  And as a former legislator, are you comfortable with the Governor executing that, I guess, override of what the agency did and what the legislature did?

Gipp: Actually let's clarify one thing, the Natural Resources Commission, the NRC, is not a part of the Department of Natural Resources and they're an appointed body appointed by the Governor or governors and confirmed by the Senate and it is an oversight agency, body, commission of the Department of Natural Resources, not a part of the Department of Natural Resources.  So what happened in that particular case is they went beyond what the legislative wishes were and therefore the Governor at that particular time, they allowed a dove hunting rule to go into place that was passed by the legislature, signed by the Governor and the Governor determined and the legislature determined that they overreached --

Henderson: The legislature didn't determine that, the House voted that way but the Senate never took it up.

Gipp: But the House did, the House did do that.

Henderson: Half of the legislature then, half of the legislature is fine for you as a formal legislature?

Gipp: But half of it did but at the same time because it went through the administrative rules process they in turn had the opportunity to nullify that rule and to take a second look at it.  They chose not to and the Senate said the Governor exercised his privilege.  I think the important thing is, is what the Department of Natural Resources is doing is following the will of the Governor and the legislature at this time that we put a dove hunting season into place and then the Governor chose to do based on input that he had received to nullify that, to give opportunity to use both lead shot and non-toxic shot.

Henderson: Do you think lead shot poses and environmental threat?

Gipp: There are some scientists that believe that it does, others are not, it's controversial at best and that eventually the science will win out on this issue.

Borg: Kathie?

Obradovich: Hunting and fishing is also a revenue producer here in Iowa. And as state budget funds become less over time sometimes there are concerns maybe that the hunting and fishing license fees become maybe too much of the important revenue for the department.  Might the department become over reliant on hunting and fishing fees?  Do you have the right balance right now?

Gipp: We hope so because what you have identified is the Department of Natural Resources is funded by 140 some plus sources of revenue and it is about 10% general fund, about 35% federal funds and the remainder is infrastructure dollars plus hunting and fishing license fees through the Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund.  So we have become quite dependent on those types of activities.  What you also understand from your long tenure of covering the legislative process is that a few years ago the citizens of Iowa created the Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund to make it constitutionally protected, similar to the road funds, so your fishing and hunting license revenues and federal firearms taxes come into the Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund are constitutionally protected and mandated to be funded and used towards enhancement of those types of activities, hunting and fishing.

Obradovich: There's also a constitutional amendment passed that would allow a portion of any sales tax increase in the future to go toward natural resources programs.  Is that something you think is needed at this point?

Gipp: There are a number of states who have done that.  Minnesota has done it, Missouri has done it, the people of Iowa did it overwhelmingly.  The key to it is there is no money that came with that constitutional creation of that fund, it is determined whether the legislature goes along and increases the sales tax at some point in the future.  If and when that happens then 3/8 of one penny or about $150 million would come into that fund.  The DNR and the Department of Agriculture and others would split that fund.  There is a formula of what you would get for that and it would go to enhance habitat and also for soil conservation and water quality improvements through soil conservation districts as well as the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Obradovich: And would you be prepared to make a case that that is needed at this point?

Gipp: At this point in time that is going to be a decision made by the legislature because not all that money of a one cent increase would come to do that, only 3/8 of one penny.  The rest of it would go to the rest of government for their needs.

Henderson: What is your agency doing to manage the state's deer population?  People who live in urban areas say, gosh, these deer are eating my landscaping.  But people in your agency tell us that the deer population is managed appropriately.

Gipp: I don't think they said exactly that, Kay.  I think they have said that we have made significant strides in reducing the deer population where it is needed.  We also know that there are certain hot pockets yet that are out there.  And so the deer management plan that is put together is based on observations, based on complaints from people, it's a whole lot of stakeholders out there, not just your hunters that are consulted.  It's observations and surveys that are taken to determine where those are.  And based on that we go county by county to determine how many antlerless licenses are issued.  And we are starting to see in some parts of our state where the hunters are complaining there's not sufficient deer.  We have still places where there is too many deer out there.  Because of that -- it was also an issue when I was in the legislature -- we put together in conjunction with the Department of Natural Resources a deer management plan which then caused extensions of seasons, much more licenses that were available.  We created what they call the Hush program at that time. That is Help Stop Hunger which then had a $1 surcharge on licenses in order to help pay for the processing of deer because if you really wanted to go out and get all the licenses available somebody could get thirteen deer.  Well nobody can eat thirteen deer in their family or very few people can.  So for those hunters to take the extra deer out there available they created the Hush program so they could donate this land to meat lockers and then therefore go to food pantries.  It's been very successful in doing so.  All in all the deer population is under control in a lot of parts of our state, it still has hot pockets and because of that we have what we call the Deer Depredation Program.  If you can show that you have sufficient damage out there you can appeal to our Deer Depredation biologists.  They will come and note that and you can get depredation licenses to take care of those excess deer population.  In addition you have shooting permits.  So there's multiple opportunities to continue to reduce the deer population.

Borg: Let's talk about state parks for a minute. Would you like to see a state park user fee to give you money to take care of the state parks?

Gipp: Dean, we have 85 great state parks in this state and it is always a task in order to keep those to the way the public wants to do those.  It's a challenge for people because we have lost revenues and when you reduce the general fund that is the first part of the state DNR budget that gets --

Borg: Should I pay then to go to the park?

Gipp: Actually I don't -- the legislature adopted a state park user fee at one point in time but it was rescinded after about a year and a half because our staff was spending an inordinate amount of time to determine whether or not somebody had a park pass rather than doing the things they need to do.  The other thing about our state parks you observe, unlike a lot of state parks across the United States, is that we have multiple entrances into the state park.  In order to allow for that state park fee to be effective you would have to have somebody at a certified gate in order to get into it.

Borg: So would you say you'd like to have the money, you'd like to have a fee but you don't know how to implement it?

Gipp: It would be very difficult to implement that and right now I think there's other alternatives until that would be addressed.  I'm not going to be an advocate for state park user fee.  I think there's other opportunities for Iowans to participate.

Obradovich: What other alternatives?

Gipp: More money coming from the general fund because of the societal benefit of having the great state park system.  So if we need more money we'll simply have to go the legislature and ask for it.

Obradovich: And how likely is that?  They have been cutting -- it seems like the legislature has been kind of hostile to the DNR.

Gipp: Actually I think that we can change it around.  One of the reasons I was brought on board is because of my relationship and past relationships with the legislative process.  I understand and appreciate the legislative process so I can go to them with some credibility on both sides of the aisle to plea the case that we -- if you want a great state park system you're going to have to help pay for it.  The other thing the Governor is doing, encouraging and we're also encouraging in this department is the Parks Foundation.  We are instituting a program with the Parks Foundation to have localities get ownership of their state park.  If you're within a state, 50 miles of a state park it is an economic benefit to that particular region of the country and a perfect example is just what happened over in Maquoketa, Iowa with Maquoketa State Caves.  Maquoketa State Caves, of course, has the bats and the bats are being threatened by what they call white nose fungus that is coming from the east.  In order to keep that from happening or slow that progress in infecting those bats in Maquoketa State Caves we proposed limiting access to that.  It is only then did Maquoketa, the city of Maquoketa and the surrounding region come to the legislature saying, and the DNR, and saying hey, this is a great economic engine for this area.  They decided to take ownership of that park and then with their legislators appealing the DNR we worked out an agreement to allow limited access to the state park.  But it was ironic that it took the potential closing of that state park or limiting access to have that community to gain ownership.  And so that's what we're trying to encourage.  We know that we have to -- if we want a state park and we want state facilities that localities are going to have to take more ownership of those state parks.

Borg: And how are you going -- you're actively encouraging that or is this --

Gipp: The Parks Foundation is encouraging that and it is a public-private partnership under the branch of administration that Governor Branstad is encouraging us to -- let's take ownership of these parks, support this Parks Foundation concept so that we can help provide the infrastructure and maintenance care.  We're still going to have to provide the personnel to manage those volunteers in that state park.

Henderson: A couple of decades ago the legislature created what is called the Resource Enhancement and Protection Program, REAP.  It has never been fully funded in the parlance of the legislature.  Do you believe that the state should commit more resources to resource enhancement and protection projects, water quality, soil conservation?

Gipp: Understand, Kay, with my long experience with the legislature I always know that there was always three dollars worth of asking for every dollar that was available no matter whether there was a lot of money or a little money.  So there's always people that were going to be asking, there's always agencies that could say we could do more if we had more dollars to do that.  We are just appreciative of the actions of the legislature in funding the REAP program the way it is funded right now.  If they choose to put more money in that we certainly can provide uses for that.  And REAP doesn't just come to the Department of Natural Resources, it also benefits county conservation, water quality improvement through the division of soil conservation and other entities participate in that program.

Obradovich: Just the news today that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has reversed its decision on restoration of Lake Delhi up in northeastern Iowa.  Two years ago this week it flooded out and that lake was destroyed.  One of the big controversies though is about the lack right now of very much public access to that lake.  Mostly it is private homeowners who have access to that lake.  Is that something that you would make a priority for DNR to push for more public access to Lake Delhi?

Gipp: It's absolutely going to be it and one of the conditions in the appropriation, the $5 million that would come from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund or, once again, gambling profits, is that they have to provide a plan to the legislature by December 31st of this year in how they are going to improve public access, how they are going to deal with the wastewater issues of the homes that are around there so that it doesn't become an environmental issue with the lake itself and how they are going to impact the water withdrawal areas.  There's also a provision in the code that requires a fish passage, in other words, a way to get around that dam for fish to move upstream that is also a code requirement. So you can understand that my position as director is to make sure as our mission is to help enhance the natural resources that any restoration of Lake Delhi and the dam would have to make sure that we had public access to that lake that hasn't been heretofore.

Obradovich: Will there be any state money involved in that project?

Gipp: There is $5 million of state money.  It is estimated at $17.5 million project but with $5 million you're getting close to 20% of that.  Therefore because it is public money the public should have access to that rather than simply the homeowners that surround the lake.

Obradovich: Given all of the priorities that you have just listed with DNR is that one really worthy of $5 million of state money?

Gipp: The legislature passed that appropriation to Lake Delhi and the Governor signed that and therefore that money was charged to the DNR to make sure that it goes to that effort with the local money.  So we will do what we are charged to do.  At the same time, as you indicate, we are concerned about the public access.  That is one thing that we as an agency will insist on, public access and also wastewater improvements in that lake.

Henderson: Let's shift to Honey Creek State Park Resort.  Is that an albatross that should be unloaded?  Should it be sold?

Gipp: We don't believe so.  We believe -- I also was in the legislature when that was authorized and it originally was supposed to be, to look like Mahoney State Park, a destination park just across in Omaha.  And it was chosen to go down to Lake Rathbun.  Those who were also involved saw that southern Iowa at that particular time wasn't able to benefit much from the Vision Iowa program which allowed for community attractions across Iowa landscape and that was their opportunity to do that.

Borg: But it's had trouble making money.

Gipp: It has had trouble making money.  Part of that is because the hospitality industry at the same time has had trouble making money.  It fell on hard times, it had tremendous flooding down there that made it inaccessible.  It had some damage at that particular time and it all came into be kind of in a perfect storm of when it was difficult for the hospitality industry.  What I can tell you right now, that it is making money and it is making money above it.  It is not making enough money to pay off the bonded indebtedness at this time and so we as a state have got to quit arguing about how we got there, understand it is indebted the state and we're going to have to retire that debt because it now is the state government's debt.

Borg: But you’d like to keep it under state ownership?

Gipp: We would like to keep --at this point in time unless there's somebody that comes along and is willing to pay what the worth of that facility is we're not going to sell it at ten cents on a dollar.  That would be foolish.  The other thing that people need to know about Honey Creek State Park, while the economy is Iowa was going down and therefore sales tax collection in a number of counties was also falling -- Wayne and Appanoose County, which is located next to Honey Creek State Park, their sales tax collection went up.  So what that indicates, the only thing that had changed for the sales tax collection part was the fact that Honey Creek State Park was there and there was a number of people coming to Honey Creek State Park to enjoy those great facilities down there at that time.

Borg: You alluded to water quality in Iowa earlier being a prime concern of yours.  Iowa is listed -- we often hear radio ads that Iowa has the poorest water quality or among the poorest water quality in the nation.  Is that justified?  Is Iowa taking a hit on that?  Or is it justified?

Gipp: We have a very well used landscape because of our agricultural practices and the way we use our landscape, not just agriculture but point source as well.  We have 916 incorporated communities in this state that all contribute to some of that.  Some of them have upgraded waste treatment plants, others do not.  All in all we have challenges out there and we also have a lot of water bodies in this state.  There's a reason that Iowa's is sixth in the nation in the number of bridges even though we're not the largest state because we have a lot of water bodies out there.  What people need to know, just because we have impure waters doesn't mean it is very unhealthy for you because the vast majority of the impurements of these water bodies is caused by sediment.  So what we are doing along with our conservation practice like the division of soil conservation and the Iowa Department of Agriculture, county conservation, the Natural Resources Conservation Commission, our federal partners, is instituting soil conservation practices and water quality improvement.  And so I think with the voluntary system we have that we are making progress.  I think also what people need to know, there has been significant progress.  We have more progress obviously in channels to go forward but we have made progress.  At one time we had only three stream segments in Iowa that produced natural reproduced trout.  We now have 30 plus stream segments in Iowa that naturally reproduce trout.  So that is a good news story that is out there that very few people know about.

Obradovich: Will the hot weather and dry weather possibly cause some more problems?

Gipp: Absolutely it will because once you have hot, warm weather you have streams that have less water flowing through it and therefore you have oxygenation problems out there so you might have more fish kills simply because of the warm water.  The warm water is going to be a challenge to certain species of fish because a lot of our species like trout like cooler water.  So the warmer it gets, the more challenges you have to some of those and the stress it will put on them.

Obradovich: Another concern about water quality, of course, is confinement livestock operations.  And there have been concerns raised in the past year about the level of staffing that you have at DNR to oversee permitting and enforcement of the livestock program in Iowa.  What is the status of that now?  And can you assure people that there is adequate oversight of that program?

Gipp: For one the legislature this year responded to that request and provided us more money to do more livestock regulation.  And previously, once again, having been from the legislature that we passed a provision out there that actually put a per head tax on the largest units and that money was to go towards livestock confinement facility enforcement and that was done at that particular time.  Unfortunately because of the budget challenges then money was taken away that used to be funded from the general fund to support that effort.  So it was kind of a replacement rather than adding onto at that particular time because of the budget challenges we had.  As far as the livestock industry itself I can tell you from being in the livestock industry and growing livestock that what we have now today when it comes to confinement facilities probably is more environmentally friendly to water quality than has ever been done in the history of this state because there's always, as I often say, there has always been liquid in livestock manure, it's only recently we started to collect it with livestock.  Before those of us, before the equipment was out there we had flat feeding floors, we had a tremendous livestock population.  That runoff then was runoff which went to our streams and rivers.  So we are collecting it now.  That causes challenges though because once you collect that manure you have an air quality issue because not only does it stink, it reeks.  It used to stink out there but now it reeks because of this.  So that is why the regulations are in place and the legislature responded with actually having regulations in place because of the large livestock operations to put those in place.

Henderson: The day you were appointed, critics of the agency suggested you were in the bag for livestock because of your previous experience as a farmer.  Are you a vigilant regulator of the livestock industry?

Gipp: Well, what people need to know -- and it's like my predecessor Roger Lande used to say -- everybody is entitled to their opinion but they're not entitled to their own facts.  And as you know from my legislative career that I was very instrumental in a lot of the environmental regulations that are in place today.  And I didn't get involved in politics with a physical education degree because I wanted to be in politics.  I got involved in politics because of the poorly regulated landfill next to my farm.  And so because of that I was very involved with a lot of the environmental regulations in place today. And so to me to be attacked to be unfriendly to the environment is really ironic.

Borg: What would you like --looking at all these challenges that you've got ahead of you -- what would you like your legacy to be at the DNR when you're finished?

Gipp: My legacy at the DNR would be that we've improved the opportunity for Iowans to enjoy the outdoors, that we provided those opportunities because if we want to go with the Governor's goals to make us the healthiest state we're the agency that actually provides that opportunity.  We're the ones that allow people to get away from the TV and off the couch and outside to enjoy the outdoors.  In order to do that you have to make sure we also have clean lakes and rivers and air to breathe to do that.  And so my legacy is let's continue to work with Iowans because the vast majority of Iowans are very willing if they know what the information is, know what the practices are, know what the rules are they will join us in that effort to make Iowa not only the healthiest state but also the most environmentally friendly.

Borg: Thanks for being with us today. 

Gipp: Thank you for allowing me to be here.

Borg: Next week on Iowa Press State Auditor republican David Vaudt and State Treasurer democrat Michael Fitzgerald.  We'll be talking money and accountability next week.  Auditor Vaudt and Treasurer at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and you can see the show again Sunday at noon.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.


Tags: budgets Chuck Gipp environment government Iowa Iowa Department of Natural Resources natural resources parks