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Give Gov. Terry Branstad credit for dexterity.

The 70-year-old governor managed Friday to underscore the importance of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, provide a vision for its future and knock out its funding.

With a series of line-item vetoes, Branstad surgically reworded a Republican-backed measure repealing the center, named for Burlington-born conservationist, Aldo Leopold.

"The veto of these particularly specified items will preserve the existence of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture while also maintaining the sections transferring funding to Iowa State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to continue valuable research into environmental and water quality issues," Branstad explained in his veto message.

Of course, it flies in the face of Leopold's famous explanation of what came to be known as his land ethic, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Branstad has none of Leopold's moral uprightness. He does what is politically expedient.

Ultimately, the governor wanted to have it both ways. He realized the benefit of the 30-year-old Leopold Center even if he wanted to divorce it from state funding. Much like Leopold himself, whose essays rose to prominence after his 1948 death, the governor seems to believe the center will sustain itself after it is no more.

Last year, the Leopold Center received a $397,417 state appropriation and about $1.5 million collected by the 1987 Groundwater Protection Act., which assesses fees on nitrogen fertilizer sales and pesticide registration.

Now, Iowa State University will have to find replacement funding, which will be no easy task given other cuts in higher education.

"Although it will operate without the state appropriation," said Iowa State spokesman John McCarroll. "We will look at options for the future of the center and opportunities for support through private philanthropy. The ability to retain the name of the center is meaningful to the university in that it continues the name recognition and reputation so important in recruiting prospective graduate students in sustainable agriculture."

In its 30 years, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture earned the trust of Iowans, in the words of former director Dennis Keeney, by regarding sustainable agriculture not as a set of restrictive practices, or a philosophy opposed to development, but as a vision for agriculture.

Through an accident of nature, Iowa was provided the richest soil on the face of the earth. When the first soil was turned over in the state, settlers found 14 to 16 inches of topsoil. Left to their own devices, Iowans developed a reputation for wasting it. By 2000, the average topsoil depth was 6 to 8 inches. Tons continue to wash down the Mississippi River. The Leopold Center offered a home to address issues presented by technology, economics and politics while maintaining a touchstone to the essential goodness of stewardship.

Through grants to researchers, investigators and educators beyond Iowa State University, the Leopold Center has garnered an international reputation for supporting cutting-edge research for cleaner water, better conservation of natural resources and greater agricultural vitality.

Gov. Branstad may not have seen the value in funding such an institution, but give him credit for keeping it alive.

It's a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Preserving the center demonstrates the value of the Leopold brand. We have the opportunity to make certain it persists and succeeds.

This editorial appeared in the May 18 edition of the Burlington Hawk Eye.


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