Letter to the editor: Protect state parks from political ploys

When I recently took my weekly walk in the Ledges State Park to reminisce on the same rock I have been visiting for 45 years. I first stood on it when I came to Ames to attend Iowa State. After graduating I moved closer to it and elected to protect it from harm.

I recently retired as Trails Coordinator for the Iowa Department of natural Resources. I have been on almost every “official” trail in every state park. I have worked with many enthusiastic people trying to repair the world we love. This taught me a lot about people and the place we live. In my lifetime, Iowa moved left and right but always less of the natural world remained. What is important — politics, budgets, guns, taxes and war? Who will save us? I find the real world of frogs and forest comforting.

State parks are political. While the candidates argue on human issues we forget all things come from the land which is definitely not man-made, private or public by business or government. Parks show us how our individual votes change the land and how we relate to our country. Some call them our “natural resources,” some “creation.” I know it is where we all live and the platform we all stand on.

State parks began because of the loss of prairie and trees for agricultural usage. In just two generations Iowa was left with little of its original ground cover. Iowa was 70 percent prairie, and today, 99.9 percent is gone, 30,000 acres left out of 25 million. The prairie made the farm soil we are living off of today. Iowa was 10 percent wetlands and today 98 percent is gone. They cleaned the water for free and nursed the wildlife. Iowa was 20 percent woodlands now 80 percent is gone. We logged the whole state and left no old-growth forests for education, beauty or our children.

In 1920 Iowa started the park system no matter what shape they were left in. We took this dream seriously even during the Great Depression. Our economic system had collapsed. Our land alterations affected the weather with dust bowl days and yearslong droughts. It was a terrible time in our history which we still refer to in the present election. What is the government’s role in unemployment, environmental protection, farming, bank failures and social welfare programs?

In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt started the Civilian Conservation Corps. It established national service for the unemployed to heal the people and the land. They planted windbreaks and erosion control structures. They enhanced the state and national parks’ system with lakes, lodges, bridges and trails. By 1937, Iowa led the nation in the establishment of state parks. Today, we are competing for the very bottom with Kansas.

Today, in Iowa we have covered two-thirds of our 36 million acres of land with only two species — corn and beans. About 93 percent of Iowa is given to agricultural usage. With the addition of cities and roads, we have changed 98 percent. We have given park protection to less than two-tenths of 1 percent. All combined our parks total 55,871 acres, or a square barely more than 9 miles on a side. Urban sprawl in Iowa alone has increased 50,000 acres in the last 10 years. Farmers converted around 50,000 acres of grassland, scrubland and wetlands from 2008 to 2011.

Increasing demand to use these last, small “undeveloped” areas will ensure a decrease in biological diversity. A large part of these 71 postage-stamp size parks have been used for hundreds of miles of roads; 752 parking lots; 71 campgrounds; 455 miles of trails; 24 artificial lakes; and many more square miles of toilets, showers, offices, houses, nature centers, sewage lagoons, shelters, lodges, beaches, golf courses and a resort. They contain thousands of acres of non-native species of lawn.

Invasive plants are expanding and displacing the original ones in every park. All DNR managed lands equal 465,788 acres or a square about 27 miles on a side. Even if we combine all federal, state and county conservation areas in Iowa and made them available as a biological repository they would total less than 2 percent of Iowa and form a square 32 miles on a side. Only 10 percent of Iowa’s remaining prairies and forests lie within the public domain. I could continue with more statistics, but they are boring us to death.

If all of Iowa was available for restoration it is estimated that only 20 percent of the land remains sufficiently unaltered to be potentially capable of ever supporting natural plant communities. Please listen closely — every existing park is too small and fragmented to maintain biological diversity and has continued to lose species.

How do we not vote away what so many have worked so hard to save? Surprisingly the greatest support for parks nationally comes from people who never go to them. They just know they are important. America is known the world over for our understanding and determination to have these places to show our pride and priorities. Parks illustrate our maturity and understanding of where we live. They are part of our community, history and just plain Iowa beauty.

We need to stop all development within these core areas now. We need to provide additional land to buffer around all that remain. We could allow limited development for recreation and access in the buffers. And, most importantly, we need to create corridors, some miles wide, to link these core areas together so the flow of all life can continue across this country.

Which way now? The head, the heart, the one sees one above the other. What kind of world do we want to live in? How will the vote turn out? If the parks’ future depends on the few who vote, then it will be decided by politicians and pessimism, not posterity. But what if everyone and every being voted? I think the trees and flowers; bugs and birds will win and will vote us out of office if not off the planet.