The exiting director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says the agency’s parks division has been hard-hit by budget cuts. 

Rich Leopold has accected a job in Minnesota with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that’s to start on September 12.  During an interview last week with editors and reporters from The Des Moines Register, Leopold discussed the status of the state agency he’s leaving behind. 

“As far as the resources for our department to do what we need to do, we are — in my opinion — woefully and shamefully underfunded,” Leopold said.

Less than one-forth of one percent of state “General Fund” spending is allocated to the DNR and Leopold says that’s why the State of Iowa ranks 49th among the 50 states in terms of support for natural resources.

“It speaks volumes to the quality of environment that we have to the employees that we have,” Leopold said, laughing. “Because we are doing a whole lot with not much.”

The general operating budget for the Department of Natural Resources has been cut over 30 percent over the past two years — the largest cut to any state agency, according to Leopold.

Leopold says there are about 100 full-time employees to oversee the 84 state parks and preserves, and usually another 350 people are hired as part-timers to work the parks during the peak summer season.  Half that many part-timers were hired this year.

“Nobody wants to fund bodies,” Leopold said. “…We have cut back on mowings, on cleaning bathrooms, on emptying garbage, on keeping trails open. Basically, anything that isn’t revenue-generating, we’ve cut back tremendously on.” 

Leopold’s agency was recently cited for not enforcing over a dozen state laws, some of which have been classified as antiquated. Leopold suggests it would be best to junk every state regulation of the livestock industry, for example, and start over from scratch, but he said that’s not politically possible.

“Most of the producers are doing a good job…The bad actors exist and we can’t get to ’em,” Leopold said. “Every other industry, if there are bad actors, the good actors are more than happy to turn them over to us…Agriculture in Iowa has had an antagonist past relationship with the environmental community to the effect that agriculture largely protects everybody.”

Leopold has been the director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources since January of 2007.  He made his comments during an hour-long interview with The Des Moines Register.  You can watch the video on the paper’s website.