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On Earth Day, several legislative colleagues and I introduced House Joint Resolution 12, proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Iowa relating to the right of the people to a clean environment.
The amendment says: “Every person has the right to a clean and healthy environment, including pure water, clean air, ecologically healthy habitats, and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and aesthetic qualities of the environment. The state shall not infringe upon these rights by action or inaction. The state’s public natural resources, including its soils, waters, air, flora, fauna, climate, and public lands, are the common property of the people, including both present and future generations. As trustee of these resources, the state shall conserve, maintain, and restore these resources for the health and benefit of all the people.”
Ambitious language, for sure. But not impossible. Illinois, Pennsylvania, Montana, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Hawaii have passed so-called Environmental Bill of Rights. An interesting perspective on this movement comes from author Maya Van Rossum in The Green Amendment.
An amendment to the Iowa Constitution must be approved by two Iowa General Assemblies before going to the voters. The earliest this could show up on the ballot would be November 2024.
In floor remarks I made to the Iowa House of Representatives on April 22 (video here), I commented on the fact that Iowans have rediscovered the outdoors and our natural resource heritage, including our land, water, parks, trails and recreational opportunities during the many months of the pandemic. The resolution was then dedicated to the memory of Paul Johnson.
Paul Johnson, who died on February 15, was an Iowa farmer from Winneshiek County. He served as director of Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources from 1999 to 2000 and as the chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service from 1994 to 1997. He also was a state legislator, serving in the Iowa House from 1985 to 1990. A colleague at the time, David Osterberg remembered this way: “Good legislation needs good ideas but mainly enough votes. Paul shared the good ideas with several legislators, Democrats and Republicans. But he could convince rural legislators to vote for strong environmental bills. Paul could get votes that no others could.”
Achievements for Iowa from that era include the Groundwater Protection Act, the Energy Efficiency Act and the Resource Enhancement and Protection Program, which passed the Iowa House unanimously.
Paul was a disciple of Iowa native Aldo Leopold. In a presentation to the Iowa Environmental Council in 2013, Paul referred to the Leopold land ethic: “This is the idea that the only way we’re going to get (where we want to go) is (if) each one of us understands what land is — land in the larger sense, not just the sand, silts, and clays but soil, water, air, wildlife, plants and animals, and people. How can we all be put together on that land, and how can we care for it? We need the hearts of people who love land and understand land. ‘Learn to understand land and when you do I have no fear of what you will do to it,’ Leopold said. ‘And I know of many wonderful things it will do for you.’