Committee approves list of outdoors projectsby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
A citizens' group has recommended $69 million worth of projects to improve conservation in Minnesota. The money is part of the state's new sales tax, approved by voters last fall to pay for clean water, parks and trails, wildlife habitat, and the arts. The process was not without controversy, and the debate will continue in the legislature, which has the final say.
St. Paul, Minn. — Let's say you had millions of dollars to invest in making Minnesota a better place for wildlife. You could improve habitat for grouse and deer, set aside big chunks of forest land where wolves and lynx can thrive and protect streams to encourage trout and other fish.
Let's say you listened carefully to proposals from 100 organizations, ready and able to do that work. You studied their plans and toted up the costs, and you came up with a list of projects you thought would do the best job for the money.
Now let's say you had to come to agreement with eleven other people doing the same thing.
Lo and behold, 10 of the 11 did agree today at the Capitol. They decided to buy 6,000 acres, much of it prairie land in western Minnesota.
They decided to pay for a conservation easement on a vast tract of forest in northern Minnesota. An easement means it stays in private hands but it can't be developed. They decided to restore and enhance 22,000 acres, again mostly prairie land.
The $69 million in state sales tax money will be matched by $35 million from the federal government and private organizations that sponsor the projects.
The people making these decisions are the members of the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council. It was established along with the constitutional amendment dedicating new sales tax money for the environment and the arts.
Most of the people on the council are long-time conservationists, hunters and fishers. Four are members of the Minnesota legislature, and two of them had a lot to say.
Rep. Rick Hanson, DFL-South St. Paul worried about the long-term implications of buying land. Specifically, he worried about the money the state has to pay to counties when it takes land out of private hands. The state already owns about 5 million acres.
"The fact is we've hit the wall. We're in a $4.67 billion shortfall. That's where any additional obligation is going to be challenging," Hanson said. "And in the future if we have 25 years of more acquisition, how do we handle this?"
The projects endorsed today would add $18 million worth of land to the state's holdings. And they would increase the state's obligation to counties by $135,000 every year, an amount that could make the projects unpopular with some legislators, Hanson said.
Another issue was so contentious, the group held off its final vote for a week. That was the rural-urban split. Some complain the metro area isn't getting a fair share of projects.
Staffers crunched the numbers, and when you figure the metro area covers about 3.5 percent of the state but is in line for 7 percent of the total dollars recommended, it doesn't sound unfair.
Still, Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, seemed concerned the natural assets of the metro were getting the short end of the stick, funding-wise. She pointed to the Mississippi River flyway as an example.
"If you're an eagle down in Wabasha or Lake Pepin and you want to fly up to your home for the summer in Lake Itasca, are you going to go through Minneapolis and St. Paul or are you going to go around the 694 loop? I don't think so. I think you're going to fly up the river. We have to remember we're all connected," Anderson said.
Metro-area young people especially need access to wild places, Anderson said. In the end, she voted for the package.
So did everyone else, except Rep. Hanson.
The final list of recommended projects includes some important projects in the metro -- including wildlife management areas, which you usually picture in a rural area, council chair Mike Kilgore said after the meeting.
"And the same with cold-water trout stream restoration," he said. "You think of the north shore of Lake Superior or southeast Minnesota, but two of the projects, two very important trout streams are Hay Creek and the Vermillion River. Those are very close to the metropolitan area. They're really great premier trout streams."
Now the recommendations go to the legislature. The people who spent a good chunk of their lives in the last four months working on them must be holding their breaths, waiting to see what the legislature does.
"They are the only ones who can appropriate money," Kilgore said. "The Council has put together a very thoughtful, very inclusive process to come up with the set of recommendations they have today."
Legislative committees are already debating other parts of the constitutional amendment money: the clean water portion, parks and trails, and the arts.
- All Things Considered, 03/16/2009, 5:20 p.m.