A revived plan to spend $3 million a year on state park improvements cleared a legislative subcommittee Monday.
House File 647, introduced by Rep. Brent Siegrist, R-Council Bluffs, is modeled after 1997 legislation that provided an annual appropriation of $3 million from gambling revenues and later from tobacco settlement funds. Along the way, the Restore the Outdoors program was line-item vetoed multiple times, then scrapped altogether.
Siegrist’s bill would provide $3 million annually for three years. The money would come from state gambling revenues.
“I think that, especially after last year when so many people used our state parks, it is just a good thing to keep them as maintained as we can,” said subcommittee member Rep. Tom Jeneary, R-Le Mars.
Iowa state parks drew attention last year when the COVID-19 pandemic helped set a visitation record of 16.6 million for Iowa’s state parks, as Iowans looked for socially distanced recreation.
The parks also made news when the pandemic altered a celebration of the system’s centennial, and a derecho heavily damaged some parks with hurricane-force winds.
Siegrist acknowledged the budget is tight this year because casinos were closed for part of 2020 due to the pandemic. That reduced payments to the state.
But Siegrist added that GOP leaders have indicated the bill is likely to get a hearing at the full Natural Resources and Appropriations committees.
Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, said he wanted to make sure the appropriation doesn’t reduced spending in another area of Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ work. Siegrist said the bill is intended to add resources for the parks, without taking the money from something else.
Jacoby said when he visits state parks in Johnson County and the trout fishing areas around Backbone State Park, Iowa’s oldest, he sees signs of improvement, but also plenty of work to be done.
“It seems like what I’m seeing when we go up to Backbone trout fishing or something is there is a whole list of things (needing work). While we’re looking good, we’re falling behind,” Jacoby said.
All three representatives on the House Natural Resources subcommittee approved the legislation.
The hearing drew 17 comments in favor of the legislation with none opposed.
Former Iowa Parks Foundation board member Ann Raisch said she and her husband have donated $168,000 to Iowa’s state parks. She supports the bill.
“So many times, I’ve seen instances of our parks infrastructure needing repairs. Since there is so little money, the little repairs don’t happen until they become big repairs, or the structure needs to be replaced totally,” Raisch said.
She added that the odd combination of flood and derecho damage and a coronavirus pandemic that sent Iowans outside for a break from their homes drove home the importance of the parks system last year. “They now realize how much these natural places soothed their nerves. In addition (the parks) provide places for exercise and promote health,” Raisch added.
Rebecca Conard, who commented online, agreed the parks need more than $3 million a year, but said it would be a good start. “Although it provides only a fraction of the additional funding IDNR needs to repair and renovate state park infrastructure, it is a step in the right direction,” Conard said. “Iowa’s state parks have experienced unusually high visitation this past year because of the pandemic, and this bill will help IDNR keep up with infrastructure maintenance in the short term.”
The Iowa Conservation Alliance also supported the legislation.