Battles continue over projects for outdoor moneyby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
There's no end in sight to the debate over how to spend $300 million in new sales tax money to improve the environment. In the Minnesota Senate, a key committee has approved a list of more than 100 projects for the next two years. But in the House, legislators are still arguing over language that tries to define priorities for the 25-year life of the constitutional amendment that was overwhelmingly approved by voters last fall.
St. Paul, Minn. — The Senate Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the projects.
Committee chair Ellen Anderson marked the event with a definitive tap from the gavel.
"Okay, that would be it, the whole bill, and I hope everyone likes it," Anderson said.
And in the committee room, at that moment, most people did seem to like the list of projects.
They include testing the state's lakes and rivers and cleaning them up, buying and restoring wetlands, forests, and prairie land and helping parks refurbish campgrounds and trails.
But on the House side, the atmosphere is far more charged. There's a tug-of-war between legislators, who have the ultimate authority on spending the money and members of the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council, the group that was set up to review proposals and recommend projects.
Lester Bensch, a member of the council and a long-time activist for conservation and hunting, sees the debate this way.
"Number one, I don't think they like the council," he said. "They don't like the status of the council. They're doing a lot of amendments to the bill that we submitted, and they're trying to deviate from what the constitutional dictate says that we should be doing." He objects to language in the House bill that says projects should support native biological communities, pay special attention to endangered species, and guard against invasive exotics, with less specific emphasis on fish or game animals.
The Minnesota DNR also says those guidelines are too restrictive. Dave Schad, director of the DNR's fish and wildlife division, said the agency wants to clean up valuable habitat that doesn't fall within the House guidelines.
"If we have a shallow lake that has been infested with rough fish and has poor water quality; if it's a drained wetland, for example," he said. "These are lands that don't have high bio-diversity elements. They don't have endangered and threatened species."
The constitutional amendment is about improving habitat for fish and game, according to the DNR and the sportsmen on the council. But the author of the bill in the House, Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, says that's only part of what the constitutional amendment orders them to do.
"The constitution specifically uses the three words -- protect, restore, and enhance -- and it uses the four words -- prairies, forest, wetlands, AND habitat," says Wagenius.
Wagenius wants to make sure the natural systems that support all life in Minnesota are viable.
Deborah Swackhamer, who has been following the process, IS a nationally-known expert on the environment. She's currently chair of the U.S. EPA's science advisory board. And she was project manager for the statewide conservation and preservation plan. That's one of the basic tools the Lessard Outdoor Council is supposed to rely on.
"I think they've had a fairly heavy emphasis on looking at protecting game habitat and fishery habitat, and that's all well and good; but implicit in that is that you want this healthy ecology," she says. "And to have that healthy ecology, you really want to make sure that you're maintaining the native species and the biodiversity that's there."
The two are not necessarily contradictory; it's a matter of emphasis. And it's also a shake-out time for a new public body with oversight over a lot of money. So it's not surprising there are fights breaking out along the way.
There's less friction over the other pots of money. For parks and trails, most people seem satisfied that equal amounts will go to state parks and metro-area parks, with another small chunk dedicated to regional parks, run by counties and cities.
And for clean water, the legislation closely follows the recommendations of the Clean Water Council -- another citizens body formed years ago, before there was any money to spend.
- All Things Considered, 04/29/2009, 5:54 p.m.