Remembering Paul Johnson, a hero in conservation

Posted on February 19, 2021 in Blog

Paul W. Johnson, a leader in the conservation community in Iowa and nationally, died on Monday, Feb. 15 at the age of 79. Johnson was a longtime advisor to Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) and was integral to many INHF protection projects along the Upper Iowa River in northeast Iowa. Below, INHF board member and former director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center Neil Hamilton reflects on the life and service of his friend and fellow conservationist.

Paul JohnsonIowa and the nation lost a towering figure in land conservation with the passing of Paul Johnson, a tree farmer, public official, state legislator and eloquent spokesman for nature. As you look across his long career in conservation it becomes evident he was the most significant voice for nature of our last half century. He leaves a legacy that places him squarely with others in the pantheon of Iowa's conservation leaders — Lacey, Wallace, Darling and of course his hero, Aldo Leopold.

I had the pleasure of knowing and working with Paul for forty years and always found him to be a soft spoken and gentle man, whose kindness cloaked an inner steel and fierce love for the natural world. Throughout his life in public service, on the farm and in his community of Decorah on the beautiful Upper Iowa River, Paul nurtured a love for the land and deep understanding of our responsibility to it. As a public servant he understood the value and power of using the law and our civic institutions to protect and enhance nature — the soil, land, water and wildlife we all depend on to fulfill our lives.

His career spanned many forms of public service — from serving as chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service under President Clinton, to heading the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. But it was as a state legislator for several terms in the late ‘80s and early '90s where he left his most enduring contributions to our state. Two of his most important and lasting legislative accomplishments were passage of the Groundwater Protection Act of 1987 and creation of the Resource Enhancement and Protection Act (REAP).

REAP  has dedicated close to $500 million dollars to state and local programs to protect natural lands, address conservation and water issues, and improve opportunities for Iowans to enjoy nature. Over 17,000 local projects in every corner and county of the state have benefited from REAP, and it continues to be the state's single most important source of funding for local conservation initiatives and innovations.

The Groundwater Protection Act is responsible for many improvements including the closure of the over 1,000 agricultural drainage wells sending surface pollution directly into our aquifers. Paul was a humble man who would be quick to point out these legislative achievements were not his alone but took a team of forward looking Iowa leaders.

The Groundwater Protection Act is perhaps most widely known for creating the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture housed at Iowa State University. The Center — which Paul specifically named for Iowa's greatest conservation visionary — was guided by a citizen advisory board and funded with a small tax on nitrogen fertilizers, pesticide registration fees and periodic general appropriations. During its 30 years of active operation, the Center funded hundreds of innovative research projects which helped provide a national model for sustainable agriculture and the scientific basis for many of the soil conservation and water quality practices being promoted today. Unfortunately, a short-sighted legislative decision several years ago has essentially ended the work of the Center. This decision illustrated something Paul and Leopold both knew only too well: Our efforts to protect nature must be vigilant because the powerful political forces that see land only in economic terms fear and resist any efforts to prioritize conservation.

The legacy Paul Johnson left us is one we should value and protect. He was a Leopoldian in the truest sense, and in my work I often looked to him for inspiration and wisdom. I valued his honesty and commitment to public service, the land and our state. He had a calming demeanor and you felt you were in the presence of a person with great wisdom and sensitivity. When he spoke in public you knew people were listening with special attention because his comments were not idle filler but instead were thoughtful and heartfelt. He wasn't one for the feel good double speak some officials seem to excel in, instead he spoke with candor and honesty about our challenges protecting our soil and water and our need to do better.

Even with setbacks, Paul did not get discouraged in his work. He was a beacon who encouraged leaders to do more, educated landowners about their opportunities, and inspired organizations like the INHF to continue to expand our efforts. Yes, Iowa has lost a champion for our land and nature, woods and wildlife, but Paul Johnson's work and his spirit live on in the land and in our hearts. He left a legacy and foundation on which we must build.

– Neil Hamilton