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Cover Story

Cover Story: Snapshot

4/21/2005

April 21, 2005

An Earth Day portrait of Iowa’s environment is not a pretty picture

By Carolyn Szczepanski

When the first Earth Day erupted, rivers were burning and citizens were suffocating in a country infected with oppressive pollution. On April 22, 1970, a massive protest descended on the nation’s capitol, with 20 million Americans around the country demanding the government do something to turn back the tide of rampant environmental destruction. A grassroots uprising years in the making, the inaugural Earth Day was heralded as a pivotal advance for the fledgling environmental movement and a key factor in motivating apathetic politicians to finally enact fundamental environmental protections, including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

But, like a fiery teen whose convictions have been compromised by middle age, Earth Day has gone soft. Now, the impassioned protests have been replaced by sugar-coated, tie dye carnivals sponsored by the latest company seeking to boost sales by green washing its corporate image. The urgent fervor has dissolved into G-rated gatherings, marked, not by collective demands for action, but hollow slogans and absentminded petition signing. Like Valentine’s Day, the previously political event has been corrupted by consumerism and cliche’s, and, just as cupid has become a bearer of empty sentiment, in many ways Earth Day undermines the urgency of serious environmental problems by making everyone feel they’re saving the environment if they simply recycle their pop bottles.

So, in the face of the shiny-happy holiday, consider this your reality check. In an effort to rescue a moment of reflection from the 35th anniversary of the memorable protest, we set out to determine just how complicit Iowans are in the global assault on Mother Earth, asking the academics, activists and agency officials leading their respective fields “where do we stand?” And, although the issues are far more complex than the following pages could contain, it is abundantly clear that the state of Iowa could stand to take far better care of its often-abused or entirely neglected natural resources.

Even in the areas in which Iowa is clearly excelling – recycling and renewable energy, for instance – it’s generally no thanks to the state’s policymakers. While other states, even in the agriculture-saturated Midwest, are making strides in reigning in environmental threats, Iowa lets animal producers run hog wild, condones regulators that blatantly flaunt federal clean water rules, robs environmental funding sources with impunity and apathetically allows the very concept of natural habitat to teeter on the brink of extinction. So, by all means, strike up the jam band. But, when it comes to the decline of Iowa’s natural resources, it’s time to face the music.

Blowing in the wind

The last time Iowa legislators established mandatory renewable energy standards, Ronald Reagan was president.

Since Iowa passed a 2 percent renewable energy portfolio standard back in 1983, other states have leapt ahead in their legislative demands for clean power sources. In California, utilities must harness 20 percent renewable energy by 2017, and in New York the state wants to see 25 percent of it’s energy coming from clean sources by 2013. In fact, notes Jennifer Moehlmann, an energy data analyst for the DNR, the average minimum around the nation is about 10 percent. But in Iowa, the out-dated and irrelevant 2 percent mandate is still the only law on the books. And that doesn’t satisfy advocates like Michelle Kenyon Brown, membership coordinator for the Iowa Renewable Energy Association.

“The market is ready, but the utilities are hesitant,” Kenyon-Brown says. “So, because we are a state that regulates its utilities, it’s up to legislators to decide how much renewable energy is produced. And they have not stepped up.”

Fortunately, although the legislators are out of step, the state hasn’t fallen behind in renewable production. On the contrary. While the state is ranked 10th in wind energy potential, it’s in third place when it comes to harnessing that opportunity into actual production. It’s been a long time coming, but Iowa is inching up on 800 megawatts of power from clean sources, good enough for nearly 8 percent of the state’s energy use. More than 80 percent of that comes from wind, Moehlmann says, including a MidAmerican project that, thanks to a January expansion, is one of the largest sites for wind production in the nation.

But with 75 percent of the nearly 750 wind turbines in the hands of large utilities, advocates say there are still significant hurdles for the adoption of renewable power on a wider scale. Even with friendly rulings from the Iowa Supreme Court last year and the likely passage of small production tax credits in the state legislature this year, Kenyon Brown says the interconnection process and net metering provisions heavily favor the utilities over small producers. Not to mention the corporate standards that lock cities and school districts into long-term contract and keep local decision makers from switching to sustainable power, she adds. In fact, just last year one Iowa man gained national attention when he tried to buy a wind turbine for his town, but, because he utility company threatened the municipality with a hefty fine, his unique Christmas gift had to be reconsidered.

Despite the big-business lock on larger-scale renewable power, however, Iowans are taking the initiative to drive up demand for homegrown energy at the gas pump. DNR energy analyst Tami Foster says Iowa is easily the No. 1 producer of ethanol in the country, and local consumers are purchasing the corn-based fuel at a voracious rate. Last month, Iowa hit a new high with 72 percent of drivers pumping a collective 1 billion gallons of ethanol-blended gasoline into their vehicles. Of course, with 26 plants already operational, in construction or about to break ground, many renewable advocates still have lingering concerns about the environmental efficacy of the allegedly green alternative. Foster says she hears those worries all the time: the production of one gallon of ethanol is said to create 12 gallons of wastewater so potent it is at least 45 times stronger than municipal waste water; the burning of ethanol may reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but potentially increases nitrogen oxide and other ozone-depleting toxins; and some scientists continue to question if it takes more energy to produce ethanol than is gained by using it.

But while the focus on the businesspages remains on the fuel capacity of corn, Kenyon Brown says soybeans have been make a push for a place at the gas pump, as well. IRENEW has gotten more calls about biodiesel than they ever expected, she says, partially because the soybean-derived fuel doesn’t come with the potential environmental drawbacks that make some wary of ethanol. Although far behind when compared to ethanol’s prominent market share, by the end of 2004 the demand for soy biodiesel had hit the 30 million gallon mark and, with a federal tax incentive signed in January, experts are forecasting that number could skyrocket to 100 million by the end of this year alone.

And for every gallon of cleaner-burning fuel and every megawatt of wind-produced power, Iowans will be able to breathe even easier, says DNR’s Air Information Specialist Brian Button. According to Button, the state is already “in an elite crowd” when it comes to the two most prominent air pollution menaces – smog and particulate pollution – and one of barely a dozen states that meet those two standards statewide. So even though activists say legislators could be doing more to promote it and MidAmerican could have opted for more wind production instead of a new coal-fired power plant in Council Bluffs, Button thinks the future for clean, local power sources is bright.

“This is something that’s becoming a significant part of our energy production, and that’s not only a tremendous win for environment, but we export billions of dollars every year for energy from coal and petroleum,” Button says. “So not only are we reducing emissions of regulated pollutants and carbon dioxide, but we’re keeping Iowa dollars within the state of Iowa. Between ethanol and biodiesel and wind, we’re really starting to produce our own energy.”

Like pigs in shit

They literally watched as the shit ran out of the building, down the slope and right into the tile intake.

When Environmental Protection Agency inspectors visited with members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement last month, Kari Carney escorted the federal regulators on a tour of some local factory farms. She showed them firsthand the streams of manure that had been flowing so consistently out of one site that they had created obvious grooves in the landscape. They watched as animal waste drained out of another cracked lagoon and streamed into the ditch on the side of the road. They saw sites that, despite blindingly obvious evidence and repeated complaints, had received no attention from the Department of Natural Resources.

In Iowa, many environmentalists have come to find that, while hog producers get the royal treatment, local citizens and the environment are treated like swine. The hog invasion has been on the march since landmark legislation in 1995 opened the flood gates, Carney says, and, thanks to the continuing trend of favorable laws, Iowa has become the No.1 hog producing state in the nation.

Of course, that dubious title holds no cause for celebration, environmentalists say. It takes little explanation to describe the environmental effects of concentrated animal agriculture. Picture a huge lagoon filled with the liquid waste of 4,000 hogs, and the effect that lake of manure might have on local waterways if that lagoon suffers even a small crack. Imagine the rotten-egg stench of the chemical cocktail of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide that is emitted into the air, not only making a deep breath unpleasant, but inducing respiratory problems, including asthma. Then consider a regulatory structure that fails to issue federally mandated permits and a legislature that bars officials from doing anything but “study” the impaired air quality.

“People are seeing more and more farms going up and their quality of life is definitely impacted,” Carney says. “We’re seeing more and more abandonment of our rural areas, which is horrible for Iowa, in general. Encouraging factory farms is just bad policy every way you look at it.”

But every way you look at it, state policymakers are bending over backwards to please the animal producers with everything from nuisance lawsuit protection to property tax exemptions. Just compare Minnesota and Iowa. In Minnesota producers have to contend with stringent air emission limits for ammonia and hydrogen sulfide; in Iowa there are no legally binding air standards at all. In Minnesota, citizens can force a potential producer to complete a local environmental impact statement and, if they don’t like what they see, tell that producer to bug off; in Iowa, local citizens have no power to reject a confinement and can do nothing but sit back and watch the construction. In Minnesota, regulators make the effort to enforce Clean Water Act provisions; in Iowa, state regulators were singled out by the General Accountability Office in 2003 as being one of 11 states that simply do not apply the CWA at all. Add to that, environmentalists say, a staff-strapped DNR with a long, documented history of turning a blind eye to clear violations and you’ve got a recipe for piggish conditions across the state.

“A lot of Minnesota producers have moved down into the northern tier of Iowa,” Carney says. “We’ve seen Nebraska companies coming into Iowa. There have been situations where other states are taking action and, because of those laws getting on the books, people are coming here. They’re coming here because we’re an easy target.”

Dirty Politicians

You don’t get singled out as the most anti-environmental president in U.S. history without a little help from your friends. While the buck stops at the Oval Office it takes a whole lot of lawmakers to get federal legislation passed. And, when it comes to reassessing the meaning of “sound science” to mean “screw the environment,” George W. Bush knows he can count on several members of the Iowa delegation to give his unprecendented undermining of environmental protections a thumbs up.

Each year the League of Conservation Voters compiles an annual scorecard, assessing how well government representatives are serving or sabotaging the nation’s natural resources. The Public Interest Research Group also creates a report that’s uses the same percentage system (how often politicians voted correctly on relevant measures) to calculate how well lawmakers protect public resources. And according to the LCV and PIRG, the Iowa delegation tends to tip the scales in the wrong direction, with the likes of Charles Grassley and Jim Nussle weighing heavily against environmental stewardship. Just how guilty should Iowans feel about their effect on federal policies that impact every corner of the country? Here’s how local representatives fared in 2004.

Trash into cash

The Gardams always knew they wanted to start their own business. Over the course of 15 years, the Des Moines couple entertained the idea of a cozy bed and breakfast. They tossed around the concept of a sophisticated cafŽ, complete with gourmet pastries. But what they ended up with was a dark corner of a warehouse full of old cardboard boxes. And they couldn’t be more excited about their business prospects.

Marybeth Gardam admits she’s probably regarded by some as “that crazy lady” with the raw eggs. At business gatherings she’s challenged companies to test her wares by mailing the delicate shells, protected only by her Corru-Fill packing product, to the farthest location they can think of. And, virtually universally, that scientifically shredded recycled cardboard ensures the egg is perfectly intact upon delivery.

With their ribbon-cutting ceremony now a month behind them and a handful of happy customers using their post-consumer product, Corrugated Solutions is just one indication that few states are keeping pace with Iowa’s appetite for trash. According to the 2004 Waste News national survey, Iowa ranked an impressive fourth for percent of waste recycled (41.7 percent) and fifth for number of curbside programs (547). Iowa is also one of just 11 states with a bottle deposit bill, which gives residents, who recycle 92 percent of their beverage containers, ample reason to feel environmentally superior to the other 40 states that can’t even manage to return 30 percent of their bottles.

Dewayne Johnson, director of the Iowa Recycling Association, says that, while few states recycle as much or more than Iowa, there is ample room for improvement. The first priority? Saving the highly effective and extremely popular bottle bill. Thanks to the pressure of the state’s grocers (who, incidentally, contribute money to a significant proportion of state lawmakers), Johnson says the legislature’s current attempts to reform the 25-year-old bill have produced, “some of the strangest language” he’s ever seen and two pieces of legislation that could drastically reduce the convenience of redemption and cut into the nickel return that brings customers back to cash in.

Of course, even if the bottle bill were to emerge even stronger than before, Johnson points out that as much 75 percent of the state’s waste comes, not from homes, but from businesses. Fortunately, Iowa is also quickly becoming a role model in turning trash into cash on the commercial level. Between the IRA and a host of waste reduction programs at the DNR, thousands of tons of trash are rescued from industrial dumpsters every year, including 71,000 tons (142 million pounds) diverted by the Iowa Waste Exchange last year alone. And innovative companies, like the Gardams’ Corrugated Solutions, are playing a pivotal role in connecting economics and environmentalism by reconstituting that diverted trash into viable products. After all, who needs those environmentally abominable Styrofoam peanuts when you can pay significantly less to pack your product with the same level of security in cardboard that Gardam collected from local strip mall Dumpsters?

Plus, Iowa is making a name for itself internationally with the work of a unique training program at the University of Northern Iowa: the Recycling and Reuse Technology Transfer Center. Since it’s inception, RRTTC has assisted more than 600 companies interested in incorporating recycled materials into their production, a feat that recently earned director Catherine Zeman an invitation to appear as a keynote speaker at an upcoming conference held by the recycling-savvy European Union. But, despite RRTTC’s advances and Iowans’ interest, the legislature could be doing far more to help the state spin garbage into gold with financial incentives that make the trash transition more economical, Zeman says. Plus, it would be nice if she regained the $60,000 in annual funding cuts the RRTTC has suffered every year since 2000.

“We are doing a good job, but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels,” Zeman says. “This is where we should be: leading the nation.”

Sink or swim

It’s time to stop gulping back the truth: Iowa’s water is foul. And it’s not a matter of a handful of renegade corporations surreptitiously discharging chemicals or urban areas overburdening their watershed – although both of those do occur in Iowa. It’s the kind of systemic breakdown in which an Ames trailer park discharges sewage into College Creek, visible feces float right through the middle of the ISU campus and, the DNR is up shit creek without a regulatory paddle because the stream didn’t have any defined protection standards. What’s wrong with the state’s water isn’t an easily pinpointed disease cured with one heavy dose of financial medication; it’s a chronic condition that requires a regulatory lifestyle change.

Iowa’s water woes have become the number one priority for a host of environmental organizations whose frustration with the current system borders on downright outrage. Like water off a duck’s back, environmentalists say Iowa regulators have been just short of apathetic when it comes to putting the necessary resources into protecting the state’s ailing rivers, streams and lakes. Sure, there have been some notable advances in the past decade, says Susan Heathcote, research director for the Iowa Environmental Council. State funding has grown from a laughable $30,000 in 1999 to modest $3 million in 2004. Years after other states pioneered the concept, a contingent of thousands of Iowans have become IOWATER volunteers, collecting water quality data that gets passed on to regulators. And, at least in theory, the state has developed protections against manure spills and fish kills.

“But what’s so frustrating is that we continue to get lip service about how important water quality is,” IEC’s Executive Director Rich Leopold says. “Yeah right. Every year it falls apart and we’re looking at the same thing this year; the governor’s talking about it, the legislature, the DNR, the Department of Agriculture are all talking about it, but we’ve been down this road before, and the list of polluted water continues to grow.”

The list of polluted waters DNR submits to the EPA every two years has indeed risen dramatically, from 157 in 1998 to 211 this year. And that’s not to say that only 211 of the 913 waters surveyed are in bad shape. In fact, only 230 passed the test with “all designated uses met,” while the other 75 percent of Iowa’s water bodies were subject to insufficient data, had at least some cause for concern, or, in the case of the 211 that made the most-foul list, were so impaired the DNR has to actively investigate the source of the insidious pollution.

But even more galling is that Iowa continues to miss the boat on the most basic provisions of water quality protection. Argue all you want about how George W. Bush has attempted to undermine the Clean Water Act; Iowans would be thrilled if the state would follow that federal act in the first place. According to the CWA, every body of water must be protected for aquatic life and recreational uses. But, of nearly 72,000 miles of rivers and streams, Iowa protects only 3 percent of those miles for swimming and 17 percent for aquatic life. States are also required to keep waters from further degradation by showing economic or social need for any increases in pollution. But DNR doesn’t do that environmentalists say. The CWA mandates that states set aside their highest quality waters and restrict any additional pollution, no exceptions. But Iowa hasn’t bestowed that designation on a single drop of water. In fact, Iowa is so far off base when it comes to the CWA, the EPA has been sending notices of violation for the past seven years and, if the agency doesn’t get with the national program in the very near future, environmental groups say they will take the state to court to get the feds to take over the job local regulators are not doing.

Of course, even if the DNR lives up to its requirements, Leopold acknowledges that the financial implications of fixing the water system invariably include “numbers so scary nobody wants to talk about them.” But that $50 million the governor highlighted in his Condition of the State speech would be a start. Unfortunately, given the constant turf battles between agencies and the staunch unwillingness of policymakers to pony up, Leopold swallowed his optimism long ago.

“The fact that we’re not able to gather additional money for water quality is shameful on everybody’s part,” he says. “We have suggestions on how to fund these things, but the bottom line is the legislature needs to figure it out and do it. They throw money like this around all the time. It wouldn’t be a problem to find if they have the backbone to do it.”

Organic progress

Yeah, right.

That’s what Kathleen Delate thought when Jerry Dewitt, agriculture extension director at Iowa State University, approached her in 1996 with the prospect of a full-time position for an organic specialist. With not a single exclusively organic position even in notably progressive states, Delate politely told DeWitt, “Yeah, sure. I’ll believe it when I see it.” But despite her skepticism, 18 months later she found herself living in Ames, and, unless her eyes deceive her, Delate is now happily at the helm of a surprisingly robust organic movement.

Despite the indisputable strangle-hold industrial agriculture has on the “Fields of Opportunity” state, Delate is the first to say that Iowa is setting a strong example in actively promoting organic agriculture. Already more than 100,000 acres of farmland are organic (good enough for fifth in the nation) and Delate estimates 500 farmers have set aside conventional methods that hose the environment with chemicals and utilize genetically manipulated seed stocks, and instead adopted organic practices. Equally surprising is that transition from status quo to sustainable is thanks, not only to independent proponents like the Practical Farmers of Iowa, but also to the institutional state Department of Agriculture, which boasts a four-person organic staff that wins Delate’s highest praises.

And while other land-grant universities have been slow to champion what many old-school professors still regard as a granola-munching fad for weekend gardeners, Delate has consistently won funding to conduct a growing body of research proving organic yields are just as robust as conventional methods and been awarded the resources to organize educational trainings, like last week’s “Organic Transition” workshop.

“On the books, we have the most state support for education at the university level, and IDALS is pretty impressive too,” Delate says, who’s also worked in California and Hawaii. “In fact, we’ve probably got one of the largest state-run programs in the country.”

But even as Delate’s phone rings constantly with potential converts, the total amount of land in sustainable production is still nowhere near breaking even the one percent mark in the grand scheme of Iowa agriculture. Iowa farmers continue to spray a staggering amount of chemicals each year; according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service in 2002, herbicides and pesticide applications in Iowa added up to a barely conceivable 36 million pounds. And that’s not counting the millions of pounds of chemical fertilizers that make Iowa a prime contributor to water quality issues as far as the Gulf of Mexico, either.

But, with the state is showing it’s support, faculty gaining interest in her research and farmers actively soliciting her assistance, will such difficult realities undermine Delate’s organic optimism? Yeah, right.

When the first Earth Day erupted, rivers were burning and citizens were suffocating in a country infected with oppressive pollution. On April 22, 1970, a massive protest descended on the nation’s capitol, with 20 million Americans around the country demanding the government do something to turn back the tide of rampant environmental destruction. A grassroots uprising years in the making, the inaugural Earth Day was heralded as a pivotal advance for the fledgling environmental movement and a key factor in motivating apathetic politicians to finally enact fundamental environmental protections, including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

But, like a fiery teen whose convictions have been compromised by middle age, Earth Day has gone soft. Now, the impassioned protests have been replaced by sugar-coated, tie dye carnivals sponsored by the latest company seeking to boost sales by green washing its corporate image. The urgent fervor has dissolved into G-rated gatherings, marked, not by collective demands for action, but hollow slogans and absentminded petition signing. Like Valentine’s Day, the previously political event has been corrupted by consumerism and clichŽs, and, just as cupid has become a bearer of empty sentiment, in many ways Earth Day undermines the urgency of serious environmental problems by making everyone feel they’re saving the environment if they simply recycle their pop bottles.

So, in the face of the shiny-happy holiday, consider this your reality check. In an effort to rescue a moment of reflection from the 35th anniversary of the memorable protest, we set out to determine just how complicit Iowans are in the global assault on Mother Earth, asking the academics, activists and agency officials leading their respective fields “where do we stand?” And, although the issues are far more complex than the following pages could contain, it is abundantly clear that the state of Iowa could stand to take far better care of its often-abused or entirely neglected natural resources.

Even in the areas in which Iowa is clearly excelling – recycling and renewable energy, for instance – it’s generally no thanks to the state’s policymakers. While other states, even in the agriculture-saturated Midwest, are making strides in reigning in environmental threats, Iowa lets animal producers run hog wild, condones regulators that blatantly flaunt federal clean water rules, robs environmental funding sources with impunity and apathetically allows the very concept of natural habitat to teeter on the brink of extinction. So, by all means, strike up the jam band. But, when it comes to the decline of Iowa’s natural resources, it’s time to face the music.

Blowing in the wind

The last time Iowa legislators established mandatory renewable energy standards, Ronald Reagan was president.

Since Iowa passed a 2 percent renewable energy portfolio standard back in 1983, other states have leapt ahead in their legislative demands for clean power sources. In California, utilities must harness 20 percent renewable energy by 2017, and in New York the state wants to see 25 percent of it’s energy coming from clean sources by 2013. In fact, notes Jennifer Moehlmann, an energy data analyst for the DNR, the average minimum around the nation is about 10 percent. But in Iowa, the out-dated and irrelevant 2 percent mandate is still the only law on the books. And that doesn’t satisfy advocates like Michelle Kenyon Brown, membership coordinator for the Iowa Renewable Energy Association.

“The market is ready, but the utilities are hesitant,” Kenyon-Brown says. “So, because we are a state that regulates its utilities, it’s up to legislators to decide how much renewable energy is produced. And they have not stepped up.”

Fortunately, although the legislators are out of step, the state hasn’t fallen behind in renewable production. On the contrary. While the state is ranked 10th in wind energy potential, it’s in third place when it comes to harnessing that opportunity into actual production. It’s been a long time coming, but Iowa is inching up on 800 megawatts of power from clean sources, good enough for nearly 8 percent of the state’s energy use. More than 80 percent of that comes from wind, Moehlmann says, including a MidAmerican project that, thanks to a January expansion, is one of the largest sites for wind production in the nation.

But with 75 percent of the nearly 750 wind turbines in the hands of large utilities, advocates say there are still significant hurdles for the adoption of renewable power on a wider scale. Even with friendly rulings from the Iowa Supreme Court last year and the likely passage of small production tax credits in the state legislature this year, Kenyon Brown says the interconnection process and net metering provisions heavily favor the utilities over small producers. Not to mention the corporate standards that lock cities and school districts into long-term contract and keep local decision makers from switching to sustainable power, she adds. In fact, just last year one Iowa man gained national attention when he tried to buy a wind turbine for his town, but, because he utility company threatened the municipality with a hefty fine, his unique Christmas gift had to be reconsidered.

Despite the big-business lock on larger-scale renewable power, however, Iowans are taking the initiative to drive up demand for homegrown energy at the gas pump. DNR energy analyst Tami Foster says Iowa is easily the No. 1 producer of ethanol in the country, and local consumers are purchasing the corn-based fuel at a voracious rate. Last month, Iowa hit a new high with 72 percent of drivers pumping a collective 1 billion gallons of ethanol-blended gasoline into their vehicles. Of course, with 26 plants already operational, in construction or about to break ground, many renewable advocates still have lingering concerns about the environmental efficacy of the allegedly green alternative. Foster says she hears those worries all the time: the production of one gallon of ethanol is said to create 12 gallons of wastewater so potent it is at least 45 times stronger than municipal waste water; the burning of ethanol may reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but potentially increases nitrogen oxide and other ozone-depleting toxins; and some scientists continue to question if it takes more energy to produce ethanol than is gained by using it.

But while the focus on the businesspages remains on the fuel capacity of corn, Kenyon Brown says soybeans have been make a push for a place at the gas pump, as well. IRENEW has gotten more calls about biodiesel than they ever expected, she says, partially because the soybean-derived fuel doesn’t come with the potential environmental drawbacks that make some wary of ethanol. Although far behind when compared to ethanol’s prominent market share, by the end of 2004 the demand for soy biodiesel had hit the 30 million gallon mark and, with a federal tax incentive signed in January, experts are forecasting that number could skyrocket to 100 million by the end of this year alone.

And for every gallon of cleaner-burning fuel and every megawatt of wind-produced power, Iowans will be able to breathe even easier, says DNR’s Air Information Specialist Brian Button. According to Button, the state is already “in an elite crowd” when it comes to the two most prominent air pollution menaces – smog and particulate pollution – and one of barely a dozen states that meet those two standards statewide. So even though activists say legislators could be doing more to promote it and MidAmerican could have opted for more wind production instead of a new coal-fired power plant in Council Bluffs, Button thinks the future for clean, local power sources is bright.

“This is something that’s becoming a significant part of our energy production, and that’s not only a tremendous win for environment, but we export billions of dollars every year for energy from coal and petroleum,” Button says. “So not only are we reducing emissions of regulated pollutants and carbon dioxide, but we’re keeping Iowa dollars within the state of Iowa. Between ethanol and biodiesel and wind, we’re really starting to produce our own energy.”

A biological blank space

Imagine a football field and a two-car garage. Smash that garage into hundreds of pieces and scatter it from one edge of the end zone to the other. There you have a depiction of Iowa’s state parks, preserves, forest and wildlife areas: the field is Iowa and those pieces of wood and shredded shingles represent all that is left under public protection.

According to a 2001 ISU Extension publication, “Iowa has the smallest percentage of its original habitat remaining of all the 50 states.” Mark Edwards, for one, doesn’t doubt it. The trail’s coordinator for the DNR uses imagery of football fields and splintered two-by-fours to try to convey a stark message: when it comes to true natural habitat, there’s next to nothing left in the state of Iowa.

Flashback to 1937 when the national parks system was just getting off the ground, and Iowa was leading the pack in setting aside land for conservation, Edwards says. But return to reality, he continues, and Iowa has plummeted to nearly dead last in the amount of land under public protection. In fact, even if you combine all the state, county and federal lands, you come up with barely 600,000 acres or a measely 1.7 percent of Iowa’s total land area.

“That’s smaller than Polk County,” Edwards says gravely.

With 93 percent of the land in agricultural and another 5 percent covered in city pavement, conservationists worry Iowa has become “a biological blank space.” More than 90 percent of the state’s wetlands have been lost. The tall-grass prairie that dominated the landscape for centuries has been obliterated: only .1 percent remains. The fact that 64 percent of the state is covered in just two plant species – corn and soybeans – could be construed as a biological nightmare, and what we do have left of the natural habitat, conservationists warn, has been dispersed into such disconnected islands that, due to their isolation and size, may be destined to become little more than biological dead zones.

Of course, even if DNR had a knock-out plan for preservation, it likely wouldn’t have the green to get anything done. As Rich Leopold, director of the Iowa Environmental Council, points out, the state’s funding of conservation efforts is quite possibly the lowest, per capita, in the nation. When you look at a pie chart of government spending, Leopold says, money for preservation effort is a tiny sliver of no more than 1 or 2 percent. And, sadly, even that is a victory.

“Two years ago they robbed every environmental pot they could,” he says of the state legislature. “They dipped $40 to $50 million out of conservation funding; it was huge. We’ve waged a massive campaign to get it restored to status quo, but status quo is still inadequate.”

Cathy Engstrom, communications director for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, agrees there is a marked lack of funding and commitment on the state level and, if a more concerted effort isn’t made to protect Iowa’s natural resources now, we will undoubtedly regret it later.

“There’s so much beauty here,” Engstrom says. “It takes more patience to see the beauty of a prairie. It’s much more subtle than the beauty of a mountain, but it’s definitely there. Someday it’s going to come up and hit us; why didn’t we stop and protect the things we had?” CV

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