Local & Statewide Advocacy | An Interview With Molly Hanson

Leadership Through Advocacy: An Interview With Molly Hanson

MORE ABOUT Molly Hanson

Molly Hanson is a 30-year old Des Moines native with a passion for the outdoors and conservation in Iowa.

She attended Johnston schools and the University of Northern Iowa where she graduated with an Earth Science degree and a minor in Geology. 

Molly has worked in the Iowa County Conservation Board system in Black Hawk, Cerro Gordo and Madison County and has been the first full-time executive director for Iowa Rivers Revival since April of 2016.

IRR’s mission is to help Iowan’s protect, restore and enjoy our rivers with a vision of clean, free-flowing Iowa rivers teaming with life, surrounded by diverse landscapes, and connecting vibrant communities. 

As a 501.(c)3 non-profit river advocacy group, IRR serves as a voice for Iowa’s rivers and stream.  The organization works hard to fund Iowa’s Dam Safety Mitigation and Water Trails program and promote natural river restoration techniques to improve recreational opportunities, economic development, safety, habitat and water quality throughout the 70,000 river miles that crisscross the state. 


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Jeff Bullock: So today, we are fortunate to have here with us Molly Hanson, who is, has a real special leadership role in the state of Iowa. We’re grateful to have here as our guest as we talk about leadership matters for changing the world through the University of Dubuque. And so, Molly, I want to welcome you and tell me what do you do?

Molly Hanson: Thank you. Well, as of April this year, I’m the Executive Director for Iowa Rivers Revival. And we are a non-profit river advocacy group.

Jeff Bullock: So if we have, we got a lot of millennials and our demographics is fairly broad and expansive in this blog that if somebody wants to contact you or the organization, how do they do that?

Molly Hanson: Absolutely. We got a website. It’s not beautiful yet but it will be by the end of next year. It’s www.iowarivers.org. Most of our information is on there. We do have a Facebook page now as well. But we’re a fairly small organization. We have myself and my sister as director and staff, and everyone else that’s involved is totally volunteers.

Jeff Bullock: So why, there’s a story here. I mean, you didn’t sort of, or maybe you did. How did you get into this? I mean, this is… there are a lot of rivers in Iowa, a lot of streams in Iowa so I mean, did you grow up wanting to do this? Or how did you come into this work?

Molly Hanson: Not necessarily. I grew up wanting to do a lot of things but when I really got into sort of the conservation in Iowa was through the County Conservation Board System. So in Iowa, we have a unique system that links all of our counties through County Conservation and County managed land. And there was a need maybe 10, 12 years ago to really amp up the environmental education aspect of that so everything from actually connecting citizens and students to their natural resources to almost supplementing science education in certain school districts and I got involved in that through the University of Northern Iowa where I was in school and I interned with the Black Hawk County Conservation Board.

And that was kind of my first experience of not just getting out myself which I did as a kid all the time growing up in Des Moines and kind of the surrounding suburbs but really getting kids out who without that initial push maybe wouldn’t get out there and experience that natural resource. And so giving them that opportunity to, you know, catch tadpoles in the water, go fossil hunting and kind of have their “aha” moment with their own area was definitely very impactful for me.

And then, I was leading canoe trips and starting water quality testing with different groups of students. And so the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. And we have 70,000 miles of interior rivers and streams in Iowa, so there’s a lot to learn.

Jeff Bullock: There’s a lot to learn, a lot to see. And I understand it’s, you know, water quality is a big issue. It’s been a really big issue in University of Dubuque for many years. We’ve had a long standing environmental science program. We’re right on the Mississippi river so we’ve got, we’ve got research boats and are preparing a lot of student for the kind of that you’ve talked about. And I’ve engaged whether it’s working through the county or through the state or the federal government in some cases. So what, tell me a little bit about what… in Iowa, why is this such a large issue now? Why not ten years ago or 20 years? What has happened to bring all of this energy and interest to focus now?

Molly Hanson: Sure. I mean…

Jeff Bullock: You, being in my position…

Molly Hanson: I don’t think I’ll take any credit for that. But it is true that, there… the conversations have shifted just in the last year, we’re really talking about water and…

Jeff Bullock: Why is that?

Molly Hanson: All over the state, I mean, yeah… it’s in the papers every week. And I think, I guess I’m hoping that it’s a shift in the thought process of, kind of, these are our resources, we need them. Iowa is essentially the most altered state in the United States. So we used to have a lot of prairies and wetland and oak savanna. We really don’t have any that’s left. So our rivers and streams are kind of our last wild spaces due to just sort of the way that this state has evolved.

You know, we have some really cool cities. We have some really unique opportunities. We have some great universities but we are still a very agriculturally intensive state and you can only farm so hard so long before you’re going to start to see some differences occurring on the land and that goes with anything I think what we do to the land. There’s going to be something that’s going to come back to us, so whether it’s development or farming or expansion of cities.

Mother Nature is really strong and when we think we can control her she usually fires back pretty hard and so I think it’s just a lot of different things coming to a head you know development is, especially if you live in Des Moines. I mean, we’ve got I don’t know if you guys drive around here but there’s construction going on everywhere and so just the expansion of cities, the way that we farm to get the most we can out of our land, you know, there’s a little bit of pushback in different situations.

And so I think when we’re talking about rivers and streams it’s everything from you know, erosion and losing some of that precious topsoil that we really want to hold on to to continue to be able to you know, feed people to recreation opportunities, growing people.

Paddling sports is a really fast growing activity all over the country. But now in Iowa we have done some dam modification projects that put in whitewater courses. And so now we have these adventure kayakers coming to the state and they want to be able to use that.

We’ve expanded our water trail system to get people out and kind of have the opportunity to canoe and kayak. And then we really see the economic impact and the quality of life impact of embracing these resources you know families want to be able to get out and enjoy these spaces and then they’re kind of learning that “oh maybe, they’re not super clean or maybe we don’t have as many accesses as we’d like”. And so then it kind of has some of these conversations of how can we value this as a resource and not just something that our city grew up nearby, sure!

Jeff Bullock: So well, let me ask you this, so you’re a millennial and you’re talking to a lot of other emotional right, and you’re in… you’re in the crossfire I mean what you do in, in some circles is I imagine, I don’t know but I imagine… is you’re not invited to every Christmas party that I imagine across the state and then… and then you come to University of Dubuque which is by the way, we’d love to have you but, and it’s a fun one.

But what you know, it requires a certain kind of strength of character to do what you do in addition to a commitment to a cause. It requires a certain strength of character to do it. It’s not easy being on the firing line or the front line ray of these kinds of issue. So where does, obviously, you’ve got that, where does that come from?

Molly Hanson: I guess, I mean, there’s definitely that level of sort of tenacity that you have to kind of go in with it you know. I grew up playing sports and I’m sure there’s a little bit of natural competitiveness in me that maybe drive some of that. But I think the bigger part of this conversation and what I’ve found to be most helpful rather than going and ready to fight is kind of the mentality of going and ready to listen.

We have a really, really unique state and it can be very polarizing at times. But I still you know, I’ve lived in Iowa for 30 years, I plan to live here another 30 years. I think we have a lot more in common than we don’t.

And so, one of the things that has been my greatest asset is being wiling to go and talk to all kinds of different people and listen to all kinds of different people, and really find out, you know, how they’re connected to the resource and how it hits home. And for me, it’s just been a really informative process. I’m a lifelong learner. I was a science major. I want to go find things out.

And so, I think, that’s kind of the perspective that I come from is I want to learn more so that we can help make our state a better place. And I think water is a key part of that.

We all need water. We need to value water. There are states around the country that would love to have the amount of water that we have. And it is something that truly connects us. So whether we’re talking about public health, recreational opportunities, you know, economic development, and small communities, I mean, there’s something that hits that trigger for everybody. And so if we can have those conversations about river, I just think it’ll make Iowa a better place.

Jeff Bullock: So I’m hearing tenacity is a key part of your leadership, listening is a significantly important element of what it is to be a good leader. What are, if you would say, three other things that you think about when you’re talking about other millennials here. What three other things you need to be thinking about in various leadership capacities?

Molly Hanson: Sure. I know about collaboration. I think the ability to work well with others and even groups that you don’t know how you might even work together. As those opportunities come up, I think that is really important to be able to collaborate and work with other groups even when they’re very different than you.

And, as far as leadership goes, I mean people lead in very different ways. I’ve always been able to lead by example because I want to jump in and go get dirty and go play in the river. And that’s how I kind of learned in experience those things.

And so, being able to connect other people to that I think is really, really important. And so, as you move forward and experience things, you know, bring along people with you.

And the other thing that I’ve been very fortunate is I’ve had a ton of amazing teachers, mentors, board members, who are just, I mean, my best advice is to just never be in a room that you are the smartest person because you are not learning anything. And so I go into a lot of rooms and a lot of meetings where there are people that are a lot smarter than I am. And that’s been very beneficial.

Jeff Bullock: That’s good. That’s good advice. So what… So you’ve had disappointments, I’m sure. And so, but the great thing about disappointments is we’re always learning. If we have the right attitude, we learn from them. So, over the course of your career, if you’re a tenacious person, you kind of keep at it. What has been maybe the most disappointing lesson, if that’s the way to phrase it or the hardest leson that you’ve learned? If you want to share…

Molly Hanson: Sure. No. Absolutely, we should all share our big falling on our face moments. They’re good for everybody. I think one of the hardest lessons for me to learn and we deal so much on the policy side which can be very frustrating, I mean, the rule making process, and I think can relate to the fact that politics in general can just be very frustrating or you know very, they’re just difficult to deal with sometimes, and that goes on to the state levels and local levels. People get frustrated with city council and their legislators. And it’s not just the national stage. And so, I think the most frustrating part for me especially when I’m trying to, you know, I’m a science person, I want to rationalize it. I want the logi. I want the statistics.

Sometimes, when we’re dealing with politics, or rule making processes, you know, logic does not factor in. And so, that is for me I think one of the biggest struggle. There’s a lot of other elements that play that kind of sometimes take away from what I think is very basic.

I would think that you know, lots of people should feel this way, you know, it makes sense. But it doesn’t always makes sense to everyone just because it makes sense to you. And so, I’ve had more than one person when I’m dealing with some of my politics, be like, stop pretending like logic factors in here because it doesn’t.

Jeff Bullock: And so, ok. Logic doesn’t factor into it. So, the question is there’s a guy with the name of James Davison Hunter, who wrote the book called To Change the World. He talks about, you know, when you think about leadership, you think of generals, presidents, and all that. His argument is people lead best within their sphere of influence.

And so, what do you say to a person that’s got a home in Estherville, Iowa, who’s just raising a family, doing the right thing, you know working to put, you know, make ends meet. They’re listening to you and they understand that there’s some challenges but certainly, I can’t do anything. There’s nothing I can do. Well, Hunter would say within our sphere of influence, we can. So, hypothetically, what could that person in Estherville, Spencer or Storm Lake, or you know, you name the community. What can they do within their sphere of influence to impact the work that you an your organization are doing on a higher level, policy wise? What can they do to be involved?

Molly Hanson: Oh yeah. I mean, we get people talking what can I do. They want to do something. And that’s, you know, we come, we’re a nonprofit organization. So we’re all about grassroots. We’re all about, you know, enabling your sphere of influence. And for us, I mean, I think that comes from basically the ability to a.) Connect yourself to your environment and see yourself as part of it rather than from the outside looking in. And that’s sometimes really just involves getting out into it. You know, we need to spend some time with Mother Nature. We need to go see our resources because if we don’t spend time with them, we’re not going to value them. So getting them outside and getting kids outside. I mean the mental, emotional, physical, health implications are wonderful. You know everybody needs vitamin D and fresh air to kind of feel sane. And so, that’s the first thing which is super easy and bring people along. You know take your kids out, take your friends out. Be that kind of thing.

And then the next thing, especially you know millennial, young families but really anyone is to engage at the very local level. We’re a policy group. We’re trying to effect state wide issues. But it starts in the local level. I mean if there’s not that kind of support and connection, you know, in those small areas, it’s not going to grow on a state wide basis. And so, being able and being feeling comfortable to email or call or sit down for coffee with a local elected official and just talk to them about the issues you think are important whether it is rivers or water quality or you know, if you’re worried about what’s in your drinking water and you want to know more about it. Whatever it is that is important to you to be able to feel comfortable connecting with your leaders, we’re constituents. And we should be represented by elected officials. We elected them. They have an obligation to hear us out.

And so, I think just having sort of the fortitude, and the you know, a little it of confidence to go in there and you know, your opinion does matter, one person’s does. And sometimes, they say that. One legislator gets three or four calls on the same issue. They’re going to pay attention to that issue. It’s only three or four phone calls. So really everybody can make a difference. I think, that it’s much easier to feel that way at the local level than maybe on the state level or national.

Jeff Bullock: Ok so I’m going to end with this because you get the last word. Thank you for being part of this. And so, in your, during the course of the next seven and a half years, I don’t know why I said seven and a half, maybe five or ten, it’s just. So seven years because seven is the Hebrew number for perfection, ok? So during the course of the next seven years, what would you… What is your vision and highest hope and aspiration for the state of Iowa, and its rivers and streams? What would you like, if we meet again, you’d be able to say, “Jeff, this has been accomplished”.

Molly Hanson: Yeah. I would like to see us fund the Iowan Water Inland Legacy trust. It can be known as Iowa. It can be known as lots of different things but it’s the 38 sales tax that essentially Iowans have vote for and now we need our elected officials to vote and fund it. And it would be something close to a 180 million dollars of new generated revenue to go towards our natural resources. About 60% of it with an emphasis in water quality projects.

And so that would be a huge first step for us and then the other thing that is a focus to us that I would have a huge statewide impact that I would love to see in the next seven years is a statewide river restoration program for Iowa so we have a statewide lake restoration program.

State money gets put into it every year, projects get prioritized and worked on. I would love to see that a watershed approach for streams and rivers in Iowa so we can start pinpointing where we see some of our biggest issue, and then very intelligently allocating money to start working on those issues and see measurable improvements into what it is we’re trying to do whether it’s improved water quality or you know habitat for wildlife or just access for individuals to have that. I think that would be a wonderful seven year goal for the state of Iowa.

We’d see some huge improvements all over the state. I think that is a very worthy goal.

Jeff Bullock: Molly, thank you.

Molly Hanson: Thanks for having me. Regards to meet you.

Jeff Bullock: You too.

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Photo ofMolly Hanson
Molly Hanson
Job Title
Executive Director
Iowa Rivers Revival
P.O. Box 72,
Des Moines, Iowa, 50301


  1. Great way to get the word out! I hope this is widely shared.

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