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Democrats fear bill could halt public land acquisition, trail development


Democrats fear bill could halt public land acquisition, trail development

Mar 14, 2023 | 5:43 pm ET
By Robin Opsahl
Democrats fear bill could halt public land acquisition, trail development
Raccoon River Park in West Des Moines has a popular recreational trail around a small lake. Rental bikes are available. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Supporters of a bill passed by the Iowa Senate Tuesday said the legislation “modernizes” Iowa’s planning for public land use and maintenance, but some Democrats feared the measure would unintentionally limit new public land acquisitions.

Senate File 516 repeals the current programs in place for maintenance and acquisition of open space properties and recreational trails respectively. It would establish new requirements for the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Transportation to submit long-term plans to Legislature on these properties, reviewing and changing the plan every five years as necessary.

The new plans would prioritize the maintenance and protection of properties currently managed by the state over new potential acquisitions. Sen. Annette Sweeney, R-Alden, said the measure is not meant to restrict future land acquisitions, but meant to make sure Iowa’s existing parks and trails are being taken care of.

“We want to make sure that when we drive through the countryside, we see our great open spaces — we don’t see multiflora roses, we don’t see musk thistles, we want to make sure that everything is in order,” Sweeney said. “Maintain, protect.”

Even if the bill is not intended to put a moratorium on public land acquisitions, Democrats argued that could be the result if the bill becomes law. Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, asked Sweeney what would happen if the new five-year proposal does recommend putting a moratorium on expansion of trails or public lands. Sweeney said if the five-year plan recommends against acquiring new land, and is approved, then new land acquisitions would halt.

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-West Des Moines, said she was opposed to the bill because of its potential effects on land acquisition.

“Iowans love their public lands, Iowans advocate on behalf of their public lands, so I can’t help but be concerned when I see bills proposed that could offer a roundabout way to limit the acquisition of public lands and slide by under the radar,” Trone Garriott said. “We have heard that this is not the intent of the bill to limit acquisition or restrict acquisition of new public lands, but we have heard that yes, it very well could be an outcome of the legislation.”

But Sweeney said this measure is needed to address current problems found in Iowa’s public lands and trails.

“We have bicycle trails that aren’t finished,” Sweeney said. “We need to be able to focus on those. We have also our trails that have not been maintained, where there’s water that has gone through them that have washed them out. So with this bill, let’s refocus and put the people first on being able to recreate within our state.”

The bill passed 33-14, and awaits House consideration.