Conservation is ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This idea is credited to American forester Gifford Pinchot, but many have arrived at the same conclusion. Conservation is thus, a resource allocation challenge and among our many resources, land is the most finite.
We have a little over 35 million acres of land in Iowa and 82% of it is in production agriculture. In a state with world-class agricultural land values, most of those acres are living up to their potential, growing food and energy, or housing the people that make the system work. The challenge for conservation is to find acres that aren’t living up to their potential—land use mismatches.
We could debate for a lifetime what the highest and best use of an individual parcel is. However, we can more swiftly agree on a lowest common denominator of land use. That calculus settles at the answer to the following question: Is land functioning as a place to either 1) produce a product, 2) make memories, or 3) carry out natural processes?
Some may balk at the implication that we have places failing on all three fronts. These are areas where the current land use is such that the land doesn’t produce some product, like livestock or another commodity, it fails to provide a place for friends and families to gather and make memories, and it falls short of contributing to important natural processes like purifying water or providing habitats for pheasants and bees. However, close inspection of our current landscape reveals otherwise.
Here are a few examples:
In many cities, parking lots can satisfy two parts of our decision tree by promoting the sale of products and helping create memories. But many city designers get swept up in anticipation of large crowds and have thus paved thousands of acres that are rarely used, often degrading water quality and city environments.
Parking lot in West Des Moines, Iowa. Image courtesy of Google Maps.
Studies have estimated that nearly a quarter of urban areas (as well as the areas around farm houses) are lawns. Take a drive across the state and you’ll find neatly manicured lawns spanning the horizon, often taking 20 acres at a time at substantial cost for maintenance without any return of crops, memories, or natural function. Sure, countless memories are made in the lawn, but the first two whole football fields would suffice, while the rest could be reallocated for higher uses like habitat, fruits, or vegetables.
Underperforming Areas of Crop Fields
Mismatches occur in crop fields, too. Soils, topography, and prevailing climate patterns make some areas consistently underperform. Continued inputs create hot spots for water quality issues and fluxes of greenhouse gasses while failing to yield any products in most years.
Barring annexation by Minnesota, Iowa’s 35 million acres are here to stay. Let’s work together to make sure they’re used to their greatest societal (and environmental) potential. That should ensure future generations still find places to grow crops, make memories, and live in a healthy environment.
Adam Janke is an Iowa Learning Farms team member, Assistant Professor in Natural Resources Ecology and Management and Extension Wildlife Program Specialist at Iowa State University.