Preserve public access to a large swath of northern forests. Restore numerous wetlands and prairies. Acquire more land for wildlife habitat and public hunting.

Those are among more than $68 million in projects tentatively approved Monday by the council charged with recommending how to spend money raised through the constitutional amendment approved by voters last fall.

But the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council wrestled with a key issue before failing to formally approve the spending package: How much habitat work should occur in the Twin Cities metro area, where most of the state's population lives, and how much should go outstate, where most of the habitat is?

"I think there will be difficulty passing this proposal as is,'' said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, a council member.

The goal is to protect, enhance and restore Minnesota's fish and wildlife habitat, including its wetlands, prairies and forests. The council, made up of eight citizens and four legislators, must recommend to the Legislature by April 1 how to spend the first year's revenues from the voter-approved sales tax increase. Members received 80 proposals worth about $250 million, and on Monday whittled that down to 19 projects costing $68 million -- the amount projected for the first fiscal year.

That left many projects, including some proposed for the metro area, off the list, which miffed some members.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, a council member, shared concern over the lack of metro projects during eight hours of deliberations Monday.

"The Senate is not going to take kindly to a proposal that doesn't have geographic balance,'' she said. "If we don't add significant attention to the metro areas, there'll be amendments to this bill.''

Hansen said he also worried that the package is too heavily tipped toward land acquisition rather than habitat restoration.

Later, the council added several metro projects, but Anderson still expressed concern. The council had been expected to approve the spending package Monday.

"I'm not ready to approve this package today,'' Anderson said. "I'm still somewhat concerned about the overall package and whether it will be accepted by the Legislature. I've heard a lot from my colleagues in the last 48 hours.''

Council members David Hartwell and Darby Nelson also pointed to the lack of metro projects. "We really need to do this right,'' Nelson said.

The council decided to review the package and vote on it next Monday.

Council Chairman Mike Kilgore said he believes the council addressed the metro-region concern by adding some projects and hopes the package needs only tweaking.

"It's a great mix [of projects],'' he said. "The council has put conservation first. We can defend this.''

If the package remains substantially unchanged, the question will be whether the Legislature accepts it or significantly alters the package, essentially negating months of work by the volunteer council.

Among the projects:

• $20 million as the first payment of perhaps $42 million to buy perpetual conservation easements on 300 square miles of former Blandin Paper Co. forest, mostly in Itasca County. Those lands would be open to the public forever.

• $9 million for the Reinvest in Minnesota program, which would leverage millions of federal dollars to protect thousands of acres of habitat, primarily in western Minnesota.

• $5.6 million to expand the federal waterfowl production area program, which purchases lands from willing sellers and restores them for wildlife habitat and public hunting.

• $2.9 million to expand the state wildlife management area program, which also purchases lands from willing sellers and restores them for wildlife habitat and public hunting.

Metro-area projects added to the package were:

• $1.9 million for the purchase of lands along the Rum River and Cedar Creek in Anoka County, which will be open to hunting and fishing.

• $1 million for habitat protection in Dakota County, including 1.5 miles of shoreline on the Cannon River.

• $450,000 to improve the water quality at Lake Rebecca in western Hennepin County.

The council makes recommendations only on one-third of the revenue raised by the three-eighths of 1 percent sales tax increase, which will begin this summer. That money is intended for fish and wildlife habitat. Another third will go to clean water projects, and the rest will be split among the arts, parks and trails.

Doug Smith • 612-673-7667