Iowa State stood by as Leopold Center was stripped

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Iowa State University did not lobby the Iowa Legislature in 2017 to save the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, according to its founding director.

Dr. Dennis Keeney, who served as the center director from 1988 to 2000, told The Storm Lake Times that state senators from both political parties informed him late last year that Iowa State lobbyists and officials did not advocate to legislators on behalf of saving the center’s $397,000 annual state university appropriation, plus another $1.5 million in a dedicated stream of funding from the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act.

Keeney provided emails from the senators to The Times. They had committee assignments on natural resources and education.

“Not one word was shared with us from the ISU lobby,” a Republican senator wrote to Keeney.

A Democratic senator used precisely the same language with Keeney. Iowa State did not support amendments that would have saved the funding and left the Leopold Center alone.

Wendy Wintersteen, then dean of the College of Agriculture, said that she had done everything she could to protect the center. Shortly after the center was defunded, Wintersteen was named president of the university. Steve Leath was president when the center’s demise was conceived and was gone by the time the ax fell, leaving Wintersteen as the chief official speaking on behalf of the ag college.

“We pulled out every stop we had in the college,” Wintersteen told The Des Moines Register at that time. “We were very visible” at the state capitol.

That’s not what the emails from legislators say. Wintersteen did author a memo alerting Iowa State alumni about the proposed elimination of funding. The Iowa Farmers Union, by contrast, issued several alerts to members to urge legislators to protect the center funding. Democrats said they were taken by surprise.

The legislature painted it as a budget-crunch problem. Leopold Center funds were redirected to the Iowa Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Program, which is mainly controlled by the Iowa Department of Agriculture. The deal was made by an Education Appropriations Subcommittee late in the session, chaired by Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink of Fort Dodge and Rep. Cecil Dolecheck of Mount Ayr, both Republicans.

Dolecheck said the center had completed its job. “Most people would tell you that farmers have been educated to that point, the research has been put in place, whether it’s cover crops, waterways, those types of things,” Dolecheck told reporters on April 11, 2017.

Others said that agribusiness did not lobby them yet neither did Iowa State defend the center.

Legislators also tried without success to eliminate the Iowa Flood Center, and have threatened funds for statewide water quality monitoring since then. The Leopold Center survives with a director thanks to a $5 million endowment but its research is now limited. The center concentrated on programs like filter strips and rotational grazing to save soil and improve farm profits.

Keeney said that corporate agriculture has been gunning against the Leopold Center since it was created through the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act of 1987, which levied fees on the fertilizer industry to fund the program. The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties over nitrate pollution of the Raccoon River was the fuse that led an explosion to preserve the agri-chemical industry’s hold over Iowa government and, specifically, Iowa State.

“You control the science and you control agriculture,” Keeney said.

Legislators made a run at stripping the Des Moines Water Works of its charter but lost in the suburbs. Before that, the water works and its CEO, Bill Stowe, had been the subject of a negative ad campaign organized by the Iowa Farm Bureau. The lawsuit was defended with funds organized by the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, whose attorney was Doug Gross, Terry Branstad’s longtime advisor.

Wintersteen served on AAI’s board as dean of the ag college.

Ag engineering department members were given talking points if asked about nitrate pollution or the lawsuit by college administrators, Keeney told me.

Other faculty members in the ag college have said they cannot speak to me about the nutrient reduction standard or water quality data.

“Big Ag fights any attempt to control its agenda, particularly keeping legislation setting rules and standards away from its doorstep. I believe that it surmised that closing the Leopold Center would be to its benefit,” Keeney wrote in the Renewable Resources Journal last year.

Runnells farm native Keeney, 82, has retired to be nearer family in Madison, Wisc., where the Iowa native conservationist Aldo Leopold lectured and wrote. Keeney calls the center’s closing “a most painful part of my life” that will “always be disheartening to me.”

“I had faith in the land grant system (and ISU) but realize that the old days of research for the people’s sake are over. I am trying to figure out how to express my disappointment,” Keeney wrote.