Game Changers: Sportspeople make a big impact on conservation in Iowa

By Katy Heggen on October 29, 2018 in Blog

Sportspeople do more than hunt Iowa’s protected land. They’re also one of the leaders behind saving it.

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Fred Long remembers getting his first pheasant like it was yesterday.

“I was born and raised in Carroll County and grew up on a 400-acre farm we rented,” said Long, 69. “There was a big grove in the back full of rabbits and pheasants. I got started shooting rabbits in that grove, and somewhere around the age of 11 or 12, my uncle took me pheasant hunting. I’ve been hunting ever since.”

Long’s story is not atypical. Uriah Hansen, who grew up in Hampton and now lives in Ankeny, and Jeff Vanderbeek, who did most of his growing up in and around Oskaloosa, have similar stories about how they got their start hunting with family and friends at a young age. It was through these experiences that each developed a deep and lasting love for Iowa’s outdoors and a desire to give back to the land.

There are thousands of sportswomen-and-men like Long, Hansen and Vanderbeek in Iowa, each of them with their own connection to the land. Their collective voices, support and work is a driving force for conservation in the state, and without their contributions to wildlife habitat protection, improvement and restoration, Iowa would look very different.

Investing in the land

Though the relationship between hunters and the land extends well beyond the days of Teddy Roosevelt, Ding Darling and the early U.S. conservation movement, it was during this time that the connection between the two took on new meaning, most notably with the passage of several landmark pieces of legislation. Perhaps the most prolific was the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, known to most simply as Pittman-Robertson.

Created in response to the near-extinction of numerous wildlife species including white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and wood ducks, Pittman-Robertson redirected a excise tax on the sale of sporting arms and ammunition in the United States from the U.S. Treasury to the Secretary of the Interior to be redistributed to the states for wildlife management and restoration. Funds are allocated based on a formula that takes into account the number of licensed hunters and the area of the state.

In Iowa, Pittman-Robertson funds are distributed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Funds are used for research, surveys and inventories, protection and improvement of wildlife habitat, introduction of wildlife and hunter education programs.

Pittman-Robertson remains one of the most significant sources of funding for conservation across the country. A similar act, the Dingell-Johnson Act, which derives funds from excise taxes on fishing tackle, watercraft and a portion of motorboat fuel taxes, is also a significant supporter of wildlife and habitat protection. In Iowa, sportspeople also provide critical support for wildlife habitat through the purchase of licenses and the Iowa Wildlife Habitat Stamp. These funds are used to support wildlife-related research, education, management and protection.

“Hunters and anglers are the No. 1 funders of conservation in Iowa,” said Iowa DNR Habitat Programs Coordinator Kelly Smith. “The majority of funds generated are used for projects and programs that benefit all kinds of conservation, not just game conservation. We prioritize protection that provides multiple benefits for water quality, wildlife habitat, hunting, angling and public access. The relationship between hunters, anglers and conservation is very reciprocal.”

This sportspeople-supported funding provides a needed boon to the state’s natural resources. However, the need for additional funding far outpaces the available resources. The state has identified over $670 million in unmet, shovel-ready projects that are ready to go once funding is available.

Over the last two decades, Iowa has lost more than 1.6 million acres of habitat suitable for pheasants and other small game. Less than 10 percent of the state’s wetlands remain and roughly half of Iowa’s waters fail to meet basic water quality standards.

While the need is great, so too are the opportunities. In Iowa, outdoor recreation generates $8.7 billion in consumer spending, $2.7 billion in wages and salaries, supports 83,000 direct Iowa jobs and $649 million in state and local revenue tax.

Many sportspeople have joined the chorus of Iowans calling upon the state’s elected leaders to increase funding and support for the state’s natural resources, like funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund and Iowa’s REAP program. And they’re leading by example.

Increasing access, leaving a legacy

While no two groups are exactly alike in their approach, many hunting and angling groups in Iowa — like Pheasants Forever (PF), Ducks Unlimited (DU), Whitetails Unlimited (WTU) and the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) — place a strong emphasis on raising money, awareness and public support for land protection projects that expand access and improve wildlife habitat in Iowa. The effect is significant, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to projects across the state.

Vanderbeek, Hansen and Long are all active members of their local PF chapters — a significant, long-time partner of INHF — and Vanderbeek sits on the Iowa Pheasants Forever State Council. While each has their own motivations for getting involved, all point to a need for more public land, quality habitat and a responsibility to ensure these resources are available for future generations.

“There’s not a whole lot of public access anymore,” said Vanderbeek. “When I was growing up, I could go knock on any landowner’s door and get permission to go hunting. It’s not like that anymore. Over the years, public access has slipped away.”

Not only does a lack of access impact where people can hunt, fish and explore, it influences who gets to experience these things, and how.

“I grew up hunting public ground and continue to mainly hunt public ground,” said Hansen. “It’s what got me and countless others into the outdoors. We all have nieces, nephews, sons and daughters that we want to grow up having the opportunities to experience what we did.”

Over the years, INHF has partnered with PF and other sporting groups on countless land protection projects across the state. This work is driven by a shared love of the land, an understanding and appreciation for the power of diverse partnerships, and unique opportunities that empower people to invest in local projects.

“Growing up, I never thought about where it (the public land) came from,” said Hansen. “You think it just magically appears. Through my experience with PF, I’ve seen all of the footwork — and the hundreds of thousands of dollars — that goes into it.”

Increasingly, more groups are investing in efforts to advocate for programs, policies and funding to support habitat, adding depth to the call for increased funding for conservation in Iowa.

“I started going down to the Statehouse just to talk to my senators and representatives and it grew from there,” said Long, who serves as the president of the Iowa Conservation Alliance, on the state board of the NWTF, and as a member of PF, DU and WTU. “The anti-public land sentiment amazed me. They (policymakers) have so much power, I felt like they needed to hear our voice.”

“If every sportsman and woman out there would stand up and voice their opinions, the landscape of Iowa would be completely different,” agreed Vanderbeek. “Public access is economic development. If there’s good public land and quality habitat, people will travel to those areas and spend money.”

Regardless of where or how each group focuses its efforts, it’s undeniable that many projects simply wouldn’t be possible without the support of these diverse partnerships.

“Without the contributions of the hunting and angling community, I doubt that we would have protected many of the acres we have,” said INHF Land Projects Director Ross Baxter. “We’re so grateful to have their support — not only in Iowa, but nation-wide.”

Common ground

We all have our own stories about how, when and where we fell in love with Iowa’s outdoors. Maybe it was after hours spent behind a duck blind, up in a tree stand or out on the water. On a walk through the woods, a paddle downriver or a bike ride on the trail.

But in the end, what matters is not why we love the land, but how that love drives us to protect, restore, explore and share it with others.

“You think, ‘This is ground that’s going to be here when I’m gone,’” said Vanderbeek. “‘Not just for my kids, but for everyone’s kids, it’s there for the entire state of Iowa. And I’ve been part of making sure they can experience that.’”