Iowa’s outdoor recreation trust fund is empty. Will lawmakers change that?

Four Iowa legislators and two conservation advocates want funding for the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund – which has stayed empty since it was approved by voters in 2010. They shared their sentiments with IowaWatch as the state of Iowa ended the fiscal year 2021 with a surplus of $1.24 billion — the largest surplus in state history. 

There’s discussion already about that surplus as lawmakers return to the Statehouse Jan. 10. 

Will funding the trust fund be a priority in 2022? Lawmakers from both major parties say natural resources deserve attention but they are unsure given interest in tax cuts. Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-District 22, sees the excess surplus dollars as an opportunity to support Iowa’s 83 state parks and recreation areas, but is concerned with the current projection of how the Iowa Legislature will use the surplus. 

“We saw in the last two years with a pandemic how our state parks have been such an important resource for Iowans.

State parks ‘couldn’t function without volunteers’

Barbara Lee of Council Bluffs took her daughter to Lake Manawa State Park’s playground in the early 1990s. Now she’s able to watch her granddaughter play in an updated version in Dreamland Park. The 18,000-square-foot playground, which opened in 2018, cost $1.3 million to produce. More than 1,200 volunteers from ages 3 to 88 took part in making the project possible; it replaced a wooden playground from 1992. A team of civic leaders drove the million-dollar mission, obtaining several $100,000 grants and assisting in construction.

Campground reservations ‘a shot in the dark’

Iowa’s state park campgrounds reservations are largely filled up on weekends in June and July, just as the unofficial kickoff to summer and camping season hits Monday, Memorial Day. This is the situation at most of the 72 campgrounds listed on the Department of Natural Resources website, according to an IowaWatch review Wednesday of each location. DNR counts more than 4,500 campsites. In 2020, Iowans flocked to state parks when many sought the outdoors for COVID-19-safe activities. In fact, 2020 set a record for park visitors with 16.6 million, according to the DNR.

16.6 million visit Iowa’s state parks in 2020; Lake Manawa, Gull Point top the list

A record 16.6 million visitors frequented Iowa’s state parks in 2020, according to data from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Iowans turned to the outdoors with indoor activities interrupted or cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Over the last decade, the Iowa DNR saw between 13.7 million and 15.5 million visitors to their state parks yearly. 

The system with 83 parks and forests recorded its 100th anniversary in 2020 just as the coronavirus came to Iowa in March. The Centers for Disease Control has recommended people remain six feet apart and meet outdoors to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, making spacious state parks popular destinations. 

Lake Manawa in Council Bluffs topped the list with an estimated 3.2 million visitors. Next came Gull Point near Milford. Big Creek, Backbone and Walnut Woods rounded out the top five.

Coronavirus muddies financial waters for parks

Early in 2020, a movement picked up pace at the Iowa State Capitol to provide more money to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Gov. Kim Reynolds presented the Invest in Iowa Act, which would increase the state sales tax by a penny to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust. It was a move 10 years in the making. In 2010, Iowans voted to create the trust fund through a constitutional amendment, but the fund has never been funded. The governor’s plan would have tweaked the original formula to finance not only water quality and conservation programs but also mental health programs, while cutting income and property taxes.