DNR director reflects on lessons learned about Iowa

Sarah Haas

In the three years and eight months Richard Leopold has served as the director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, he has witnessed the two largest floods in the state’s history.

An ecologist by training and ISU alumnus, Leopold has taken a position newly created within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As he leaves to assume a new role as Midwest Region Assistant Regional Director for Science Applications, Leopold reflects on climate change, agriculture and Iowa State.

What are the noticeable differences in Iowa’s climate you have observed?

The tricky thing when you talk about climate change is that it’s not a problem within itself. It makes every other problem worse. We’ve always had floods in Iowa; we’ve never had floods like this. We’ve always had extreme rains in Iowa; we’ve never had events like this where one cloud will sit there and dump five or eight inches in a night.

That’s been happening on a more regular basis. We’ve always had a hot humid night here or there; we’ve never had weeks at a time with humid nights. So we’re seeing weather changing and that is leading to other ecological effects.

We have hot humid nights, which fungus loves. So that’s great for mushroom hunters, but bad for farmers because things like late season soybean rust and things like that are very bad.

So we’re seeing more late-season aerial applications of herbicides and fungicides. There’s 27,000 miles of perennial waterways in Iowa and no matter how careful they are, they’re hitting water. We’re seeing fish kills. When they hit water, a lot of these pesticides break down fast, but they’re having acute effects on fish. It’s so potent we’re seeing fish swimming in circles until they die.

So we have climate change way over here as the pebble, and we have these ripples on a pond playing out. We don’t know what these ripples look like. As an agency, the DNR and then in my new position with the federal government, that will be what I’m trying to do. Set up a framework so that we can get scientific inquiry into what’s going on, why it’s going on, and what can we do about it.

We’ve seen a great example out west. The pine beetle isn’t dying during the winter, devastating millions of acres of forest. Forest fires ripping though and killing everything. That’s climate related. Forest fires are because of pine beetles, are because of mild winters.

Has anything in particular surprised you since serving as the director of the DNR?

Not a real surprise, but it’s been very disheartening seeing the level of political interference into scientific applications. As a department, we are beholden to the laws of the state and the nation. Things on a national level move very slow and with much deliberation, so they don’t move much. But on a state level can move faster and it’s been disheartening to see how much politics plays into decisions that are made in our state.

Do you have an example?

Sure. [In] 2008 we had a bunch of floods. We created a bunch of committees, we spent a bunch of money in recovery phase.

One year later, the committees came up with model ordinances so that if cities wanted to, voluntarily, they could adopt these smart-growth ordinances and not build in flood plains and things like that. We could not even pass a model, a voluntary model, through this last state’s legislature. Why? That is utterly ridiculous.

We get chewed out for things like, as those houses are being rebuilt, making sure they test for asbestos correctly. Block by Block was going through, and they do great work and we really appreciate them, but they weren’t doing the proper asbestos testing. As soon as they found out about it they stopped and began doing it correctly so they responded very well. Now the politics of the situation were, “Are you going to stand in the way of recovery?” Are you kidding me? What if you lived in that house? Would you want it inspected for asbestos? I sure would, and that’s what we’re going to demand.

Do you think people are aware that politicians are affecting how experts are able to make decisions?

I think that’s part of the disconnect. Everyone has to trust somebody.

There’s no way everybody can be an expert in everything. And part of the problem is ours in the scientific fields that we have an obligation to give the right information and be able to communicate. So sometimes we have our scientific mumbo jumbo that justifies why certain actions need to be placed but we don’t explain it well enough.

It just sounds like an arbitrary number when actually we have tons of science to back up our recommendation. We’re not very good at articulating the public health risks that are associated with the numbers.

What are we doing that is negatively affecting the environment?

Two words: clean and sustainable.

The way we are doing production agriculture right now is neither clean, nor sustainable. We’re doing better than we have, but what we’re doing is still mining soil.

The erosion rates and aerobic decomposition rates and everything else; we’re seeing indicators that we’re doing damage. I work a lot with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and we know how to do things differently. Farmers know this innately that perennial crops and range feeding of livestock are sustainable.

The big problem that we have is that large production agriculture is not necessarily evil. These were decisions made with good information, by good people that have cumulatively led us to where we are. When we started and did a drainage district, it worked very well. Now we have about 3,000 in the state and the cumulative action of those drainage districts have led to a problem.

A person maximizing yield on his piece of land is not a problem until you have everybody that does the same thing and entire industries and education institutions that are leading toward that. So everything has been about bushel per acre, bushel per acre, we have to feed the world — not about sustainability. Perhaps we should be talking about human population trends and about social justice. If we’re going to go to a different future, which a lot of people would have happen and I think absolutely has to happen or we will fall apart as a civilization, is we have to think about transitions.

What’s the difficulty with transitioning?

We’re having a really hard time with this transition period in the middle. If you’re a farmer who runs a couple thousand acres of corn and you just bought a combine for $250,000, what are you going to do? You have no choice. You have a mortgage and kids in college.

So you have an institutionalized system now that is not sustainable. This isn’t our grandpa’s farm. This isn’t 40 acres of woodland, 40 acres of perennials, and 40 acres of corn. This is all corn or a livestock facility with half a million chickens and 3,000 head of cattle. But again, it’s not evil. I like bacon cheeseburgers, it’s just a different model of production.

So how do you think we should transition?

Well, if you figure that one out call me; the paradoxical nature of Iowa State. You have the engine of this country, if not the world, of production agriculture. And you have funding streams that make sure that’s how it stays. You have a lot of bushel-per-acre thinkers and that’s what they do.

They’re not bad people, they’re on a path that has been established. Then you’ve got the Leopold Center, which makes it a very paradoxical relationship at Iowa State. It builds on things like clean water and sustainable economies. It’s a strange place.

Why are you leaving your position?

This is a very strange time because there has been a change in the past couple of years. Science has come to play a very prominent role in the federal government. For a while there we were asleep at the wheel.

Now we’re trying to make decisions with relevant scientific inquiry, but we need to synthesize all of the incoming information, which is what my new position is supposed to do. Things are changing and will continue to change even if we stop driving cars today and we turn off all the coal plants.

Climate change is underway and it’s not going to stop for another 10 to 20 years no matter what. What we’re deciding today is how bad it’s going to get. So what we have to do is guide scientific policy on a continental scale so that we can better adapt to the changes underway. That’s my new job.