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Publication Number:      Date:  July/August 2001
Issue No: Vol. 65 No. 1
Date: July/August 2001


Iowa's Approach to Environmental Stewardship

by Dena M. Gray-Fisher

The Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) is the state's largest public works agency. It is responsible to the people of Iowa for providing a safe and reliable transportation system and for protecting and enhancing the state's environmental resources.

Iowa DOT's public service ethic is guided by a philosophical approach that encourages employees to provide a good transportation system and a healthy environment. Woven into this philosophy is a level of environmental responsibility that extends beyond strict regulatory compliance.

This sense of environmental stewardship is contributing affirmatively to the state's environment and its transportation system. Yet, it is an approach some Iowa residents find a bit confusing and sometimes frustrating. The confusion is most evident when environmental issues are raised regarding the selection of a highway location or the rate of progress being made in the project development process.

Ecological Transportation Logo.
Campaign logo and slogan (Created by Lynn Purcell, Iowa DOT)(Cory Heintz, Iowa DOT)

The confusion is not limited to Iowa DOT's external customers. This philosophical approach has required some DOT employees to make a mental leap from their traditional way of thinking. For many years, the word "environment" in relationship to the transportation industry carried a negative connotation that implied some sort of barrier to success. Seldom were the words "transportation" and "environment" spoken positively in the same sentence. But this is changing.

Benchline Data

For this philosophical approach to be effectively adopted in the state, Iowa DOT knows two things need to happen. First, Iowans need some time to fully grasp the importance of DOT's actions to balance the state's transportation needs and the preservation of its environmental resources. Secondly, the department needs to invest in the education of both its employees and the public. The response to this second need set in motion Iowa DOT's multiyear environmental education and communication planning and implementation effort.

An initial step in the planning process was to conduct a public opinion survey of a representative sample of 3,000 Iowa households. This survey was conducted in October 2000. The purpose of the survey was to gather information about the public's perceptions, opinions, attitudes, and knowledge levels about environmental issues. It was also designed to collect information about the public's participation rates in DOT-sponsored environmental activities, such as Adopt-A-Highway, tree planting, wildflower and native grass restoration, and recreational trails.

The information from this survey provided essential benchline data from which the department was able to build a focused, multiyear educational and communication plan. The data will also be used to measure change after the plan has been fully implemented.

Survey Results

Thirty-four percent of the households contacted returned their surveys. This is considered an exceptional rate of return for a government-sponsored public opinion survey.

In general, the survey served to affirm some of the department's intuition about public perception and knowledge level. It revealed that Iowans' top three environmental concerns are air, surface water, and underground water quality. And it identified particular market segments by gender, age, and area of residency (rural/urban) for which DOT could target educational activities.

A disconcerting fact revealed in the survey was that less than 15 percent of the respondents are aware of the ways in which they could participate in one of DOT's environmental activities. With the understanding that few respondents are aware of how to participate in DOT activities, the department began to place an emphasis on letting Iowans know how to get involved.

DOT also found that when participation rates in a DOT-sponsored program are high, such as participation in the used tire recycling days, the respondents' rating of the importance of that same activity is equally high. The reverse is also true. The participation rate in the community gateway planting program is low, and the corresponding importance rating is also low.

The survey also confirmed a long-held suspicion that Iowans have little familiarity with endangered and threatened plant and animal species. Survey data indicated that less than 15 percent of the respondents know which species are threatened and endangered in Iowa. Based on experiential data, the department estimates that the true level of knowledge may even be lower than reported.

Understanding that the public's knowledge about endangered and threatened plant and animal species is low is very important to the highway development process. A lack of knowledge can be critical when attempting to explain the reasons why certain habitats should be avoided and species protected.

Education and Communication Plan

Iowa DOT used the survey results, as well as other information sources, to develop a multiyear education and communication plan that addressed both its employees and the public. The plan has specific measurable objectives aimed at changing perceptions, attitudes, participation rates, and knowledge levels. Data that will be used to determine whether these objectives are achieved will be captured in a follow-up survey in October 2002.

Mascot Hugging Children.
Enviro, the Enviro-Explorers' mascot, encourages students to get involved in protecting the environment.

(Cory Heintz, Iowa DOT)

Phase I of the communication plan (implemented between May 1, 2000, and April 30, 2001) consisted of a mix of 35 communication strategies that represented research, promotions/events, campaign support materials, "Iowans in Action" (public engagement), promotional materials, external publicity/education, and internal education/awareness-building.

Phase II of the plan, which will be completed April 30, 2002, builds on the strengths of the first phase and involves the implementation of several dozen more targeted communication strategies.


Branding is a fundamental element in any communication planning process. A brand helps to establish and manage the images, perceptions, and associations applied to a product, service, or program. The branding process involves the development and application of a slogan (phrase) and a logo (graphic identity).

For Iowa DOT's environmental communication plan, the department considered 31 different slogans. Staff selected the phrase, "EcoLogical Transportation" as its campaign slogan. This slogan was selected because it best conveyed the messages that the environment is an important aspect in transportation decision-making and that DOT uses a balanced, well-informed, and logical approach.

DOT also considered nine different logo designs, each incorporating the EcoLogical Transportation slogan. The designs were presented to a focus group to solicit the group's initial reactions and to gather feedback. After analyzing the group's responses, DOT created a modified logo design that incorporated many of the suggestions of the focus group.

Internal Communication

Most of the plan's internal communication strategies involve the use of DOT's employee newsletter and quarterly video program to educate employees about the various environmental activities performed throughout the department. Some of the topics that have been covered are wetlands mitigation; archeological exploration; historic preservation of railroad depots; herbicide management testing; Adopt-A-Highway program; DOT's use of bio-based products such as soy diesel, soy concrete sealer, and corn-based deicers; prairie restoration and planting projects; various erosion control measures; agencywide recycling; and environmental highway features.

Youth Outreach and Education

The plan's external strategies use a variety of communication tools designed to reach specific target audiences. For instance, one of the plan's primary target audiences is Iowa's young people. Research showed that 98 percent of respondents strongly agree that Iowa's young people should receive education materials concerning environmental issues.

To most effectively reach younger Iowans, DOT developed a cyber-club - Enviro-Explorers Kids' Club (www.enviro-explorers.com). The Web site offers information and activities about endangered and threatened species, archeology, wildflowers, and other environmental issues.

With assistance from the state's area education agencies, DOT distributed posters promoting the Web site to nearly 15,000 Iowa classrooms. The site is also prominently promoted on the 2001 Iowa Transportation Map.

Besides the club's online activities, classrooms from kindergarten through 5th grade are invited to participate in a special group membership offer. With the group membership, each student receives a free "kids' pak." Inside the kids' paks are environmental educational materials, including an endangered species poster, series of trading cards, field notebook and pencil, activity book and crayons, bat kite, membership pledge card, tattoos, bike map, complimentary copy of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Conservationist magazine and a subscription discount coupon, and a wildflower seed packet.

Among the many other communication strategies aimed at younger Iowans is the creation of a turtle mascot named Enviro. Enviro's likeness is incorporated into the club's logo design and is used on all promotional materials. Enviro is also a regular visitor at preschools and early-elementary schools, where he shares DOT's environmental messages.

Enviro was also featured in a nine-part cartoon series printed on the side of several hundred thousand milk cartons distributed to school-age students in the eastern one-third of Iowa. This nine-month-long strategy was accomplished through the volunteer sponsorship of one of the country's major dairy distributors based in Iowa.

In addition to these strategies, DOT is also developing educational curricula to assist teachers. The curricula focus on three areas of the environment: plants (an outdoor classroom), earth ("Rocks and Roads"), and archeology.

Adult Education and Information

Several communication strategies are also targeted toward adults. The flagship strategy involves the use of the theme "Environmental Stewardship" on the official state map. Printed on the reverse side of the map are information and photographs describing DOT's efforts to protect and enhance the environment. Two million maps will be distributed this year.

Other external strategies include the publishing of a new bike map, scenic byways booklet, revised Adopt-A-Highway brochure, and the issuance of periodic news releases about environmental activities.

Iowa DOT staff also took the environmental message on the road. The department created an 8-foot (2.4-meter) by 12-foot (3.6-meter) display to serve as the springboard for conversation about environmental issues. To reach the greatest number of transportation users, DOT took the display and promotional materials to the interstate rest areas. During each four-hour event, DOT personnel greeted travelers and shared information about DOT's environmental activities. Each visitor received a complimentary packet of wildflower seeds.

In partnership with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), DOT also published a 16-page, fully illustrated article in DNR's Conservationist magazine. This article told the story of DOT's environmental activities and was distributed to the magazine's 50,000 paid subscribers.

Doing the "Right" Thing in the Meantime

Iowa DOT realizes it will take time for Iowans to begin to fully understand and appreciate the complexity of the decisions about transportation and the environment. In the meantime, however, DOT continues to take its responsibilities seriously. When it comes to the environment, time isn't always on your side. This is especially true when you consider the fact that many decisions made today are irreversible.

DOT is also beginning to see some preliminary positive results from its educational efforts. The department is optimistic that affirmative changes will be revealed in its follow-up research. It also sees youth education and outreach as providing the greatest opportunity for long-term success.

Early education can be a powerful tool with a lasting impact to create a better understanding of what it takes to be good stewards of our environment while continuing to provide a functional transportation system.

Dena M. Gray-Fisher is the director of the Iowa Department of Transportation's Office of Media and Marketing Services. She has held the position since 1996. Gray-Fisher is also the secretary-treasurer of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Administrative Subcommittee on Public Affairs. She was responsible for leading the team that conducted the research and that developed and implemented the environmental communication plan described in this article.




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