Iowa's new governor, Chet Culver, has chosen Richard Leopold as director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Leopold replaces Jeff Vonk, one of Iowa's most vocal and visible state government administrators.
Vonk ran the department for the past six years. Leopold's nomination by Culver is expected to be confirmed by the Iowa Senate sometime in January after Culver is inaugurated, and then Leopold will take over as DNR chief.
Leopold, 42, is a former employee of DNR--the government agency that leads Iowans in caring for natural resources. It is responsible for carrying out state laws protecting the environment, including regulating livestock production and other farming activities. DNR is also responsible for maintaining state parks and forests, and managing energy, fish, wildlife, land and water resources in Iowa.
Iowa Environmental Council director
Leopold's current job is executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council, a nonprofit coalition of 76 organizations and over 600 individual members working to improve Iowa's environment. The council is a policy development organization lobbying for environmental protection and, sometimes, new pollution limits.
Leopold doesn't see major changes in DNR staff or direction for the state agency. He declined to outline his plans on hot-button issues such as county zoning of hog confinements, saying Culver wants to meet with him and others before proposals are put on the table.
Why did Culver choose a new DNR head instead of reappointing Vonk? Originally appointed by Gov. Tom Vilsack, Vonk has developed a tense relationship with farm-group leaders and with some lawmakers in recent years.
Time for change in DNR leadership
"I'm excited about appointing Rich Leopold to head the Department of Natural Resources," said Culver in making the announcement on December 29. "This is an extremely important appointment; I feel Rich is the best candidate to protect Iowa's environment and wildlife for future generations. As a sportsman, father and fifth-generation Iowan, protecting our environment is something I don't take lightly. By working together and bringing people to the table, we can do this."
Culver says about 25 people applied for the job and several of those were interviewed.
Leopold says, "I'm honored Gov. Culver has asked me to serve in this position. I look forward to working with the Culver-Judge administration. Our philosophies are similar on sustainable expansion of clean renewable energy, addressing Iowa's water quality concerns, working to secure adequate funding for protection and enhancement of our natural resources and other issues."
"I have a strong relationship with DNR staff, lawmakers and environmental, ag and federal and regional groups. I'm seen as a communicator and negotiator."
Farm groups critical of Vonk
Vonk received a salary of $118,000. His tenure was marked by new efforts to clean Iowa streams and rivers, to tighten pollution rules and control livestock pollution during a period of record construction of livestock confinements. Vonk was well-liked by environmentalists but farm groups criticized him, finding his aggressive regulatory actions bad for Iowa's livestock industry.
Vonk's move to increase his power over location of new hog confinements drew strong opposition from farmers. "However, we look forward to working with the new director and new administration," says Eldon McAfee, a lawyer for the Iowa Pork Producers Association. "We've had a good working relationship with Rich Leopold on water quality and other issues."
Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Lang praised Culver for appointing Leopold. Lang thinks the change will set aside bad feelings about Vonk at a time when environmental and farm organizations need to keep cleaning up waterways and promoting crop-based fuels. "We've worked closely with Rich and the Iowa Environmental Council the past few years on water quality planning," says Lang.
What does Leopold see as key issues for DNR? "We need steady money for parks and natural resources, need to expand Iowa's role in alternative energy production and continue work to clean up the state's rivers and streams."
Who is Rich Leopold?
Previously, Rich Leopold has worked as a biologist and naturalist for the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and Minnesota and Iowa state governments. He has a master's degree in natural resources ecology and management from Iowa State, and biology degrees from Minnesota State University and Central Lakes College at Brainerd, Minn.
In July 2002 Leopold began working for the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council as communications director. He was promoted to executive director in 2003. Previously he worked for Iowa DNR coordinating a fledgling program called IOWATER, the state's network of volunteers who monitor water quality. Leopold has also worked for the Dickinson County Conservation Board.
Leopold is not related to the late Aldo Leopold, the Burlington-born author of the famous conservation book, "A Sand County Almanac," but he shares the late conservationist's views.