Future of Ames state tree nursery in peril
WEBSTER CITY – The fate of the state tree nursery in Ames may depend on Iowans convincing their state legislators and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources that it needs to remain open.
This was the primary message that came from 13 concerned citizens who gathered Friday afternoon at the Webster City Municipal Airport with state forester Paul Tauke.
At issue is the Iowa DNR Forestry Bureau’s proposal to close the state nursery in Ames because the facility cannot meet its expenses.
According to Tauke, the nursery has operated at a loss consistently since fiscal year 2007, losing a total of $1.455 million in the eight-year period.
Tauke said the fiscal year 2014 loss of $321,000, plus another $185,000 in salaries and benefits for two workers who are paid from another fund, raises the loss to more than $500,000.
Tauke said this is the highest one-year loss the nursery has experienced in its 79 years of existence and he expects a repeat of that loss in 2015.
Although closing the nursery is not a done deal, he said it is a very real possibility. A DNR Forestry meeting set for March 13 will likely determine the final decision.
Those meeting with him in Webster City represented private landowners who plant trees for conservation purposes, plus members of conservation groups from around the state.
All want to keep the nursery in operation.
In late 2014, the forestry bureau started studying the possibility of closing the facility and moving its assets to its other nursery in Montrose, in southwest Iowa.
Bill Lilienthal, of Duncombe, and Ralph Storm, of Stratford, said they are opposed to closing the facility that is centrally located in the state.
Storm said he plants many trees along the Boone River where he lives and doesn’t want to travel across the state to get his seedling stock.
Tauke said as state forester he wants to keep the nursery open, that the bureau is still interested in conservation.
“Ideally, if we can figure out a solution that can close the budget gap, I think it would be good for it to stay open,” Tauke said.
“But as the chief administrator for the forestry budget, I have to be cognizant of the fact that in the last fiscal year it lost $500,000 and may be promising to do the same in this fiscal year.”
In 1986, at the urging of private nurseries angry over a subsidized state entity competing for their livelihoods, the state Legislature made it illegal for the state nursery to be subsidized by tax money, requiring the DNR’s nursery business to pay for itself.
As a result, administrative rules issued afterward limited state nursery sales to within Iowa only, and mandated purchases of 200 to 500 trees per variety per purchase.
Tauke told the group that in previous years he’s used forestry funds from other projects to cover the losses.
These include, he said, delaying purchase of new equipment for state forestry system, withhold hiring season employees on the state’s four major state forests covering 46,000 acres.
“We look at trying to find federal grant money to do special projects to bring in more federal money. We have to spend the money on federal projects, but if it takes some pressure off the general fund, we can use it to help support the nursery.”
He said by Iowa code, that practice has to stop.
“We try to follow the code the best we can,” Tauke said, “but we’re always projecting what our sales are going to be.
“The fiscal year ends about the time seedling sales end. So we give our best guess about 18 months before and hope we hit (the sales goal). If we don’t hit it, then we have to cover it.”
Right now, he said, if the nursery remains open, he doesn’t think sales could realistically be projected beyond the sales history of the past three years, which has been consistent at 1 million to 1.1 million trees.
Tauke said the bureau is looking at just two viable alternatives to closing:
- A state allocation to cover losses, or;
- Restructure and consolidate the nursery’s seedling stock to just those varieties of native trees that sell in Iowa and raise the price per tree to possibly $1.
Tauke said there appears to be no interest in the Legislature to cover the nursery’s losses.
He’s also dubious over the idea that raising prices will lead to selling a million trees, especially when other nurseries with conservation plantings are under that amount.
“About a third of our tree sales annually,” Tauke said, “are to about 12 conservation contractors buying for their clients. They will be looking for the best deal for their clients.”
What’s to be done?
Jess Randall, who works at the nursery, urged citizens to consistently contact state lawmakers with the message that closing the nursery is not a good idea. It may be what saves the nursery.
As a member of the Iowa Tree Farm Project, Larry Willey, of Palo, said he’d like to see the forestry bureau keep the nursery open a few more years with increased prices and see if the facility can begin to cover its costs.
He said administrative rules were changed in 2010 to allow out-of-state sales, which did not help.
He also wants to see the rules altered to allow sales of trees in any number.
The nursery carries three technician positions, a forester, a nursery manager and an administrative assistant.
Tauke said if the nursery is closed there are plans for finding other positions for these workers within the bureau.
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