Minnesota history changed 10 years ago, on Saturday, April 2, 2005 — Earth Day.

That’s when the first Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water Rally was held on the Capitol Mall, attracting as many as 6,000 duck hunters and other conservationists. Some arrived by foot, others by bicycle and still others by chartered bus, vectoring toward St. Paul from Brainerd, Willmar and other distant locales.

Impetus for the rally was a column I wrote on Dec. 12, 2004, part of which said:

In St. Paul, we should be able to put together a few thousand — and perhaps a few thousand more — supporters of wetlands and wetland wildlife to demand action in a state where both have played important roles in the state’s history.

To succeed, supporters will have to come to St. Paul from the north, the south and the west, joining at the Capitol with Twin Cities residents who rally when rallying isn’t really what they do.

Someone must organize the gathering. Someone must pick a date.

Everyone — or as many as possible — must come. Write me with ideas.

Hundreds did write, and from those a few dozen joined together to organize the April 2005 rally. The event was the first of its kind in Minnesota to organize “guns and greens’’ — hunters and anglers, together with environmental groups — in a common effort.

Especially frustrating had been the Legislature’s unwillingness to place on a statewide ballot a constitutional amendment dedicating a portion of the state sales tax to conservation. A bill proposing the amendment was first offered in 2000 by Sen. Bob Lessard and Rep. Mark Holsten.

The rally was a huge deal. Gov. Tim Pawlenty spoke, as did legislative leaders. Ducks Unlimited pledged $10 million to restore Minnesota wetlands. Radio stations broadcast live from the Capitol Mall. And conservation groups ranging from the Izaak Walton League to the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, Ducks Unlimited to The Nature Conservancy, and many others, showcased their organizations in carnival-style tents that formed a half-circle around the Capitol grounds.

Cabela’s, Gander Mountain and other businesses helped to defray costs of the rally.

Still, the line between the April 2005 rally and passage, finally, by Minnesota voters in November 2008 of a constitutional amendment now known as the Legacy Act was anything but direct. One by one, legislative roadblocks had to be defeated, as did agriculture and business groups that believed dedicating a fractional portion of the sales tax to habitat, clean water, parks and trails and the arts would somehow do them harm, or at least not benefit them.

Credit for the idea in Minnesota of dedicating a portion of the state sales tax to conservation goes to Lessard (who was inspired by a similar plan in Missouri). He discussed it with me as early as the mid-1990s and, as chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, heard a self-authored bill in his committee on March 1, 2000, that would assign 3/16 of 1 percent of the sales tax to “metro parks and trails, state parks and trails; to zoos in Duluth, Apple Valley and St. Paul; and to fish and wildlife and their habitats."

That bill didn’t gain legislative approval. Nor did its many following iterations. But eventually, the stars aligned and Minnesotans with widely varied interests and agendas joined together to accomplish what no other state had done previously or since: set aside about $300 million annually for fish and wildlife habitat, clean water, parks and trails, and arts and heritage.

Current conditions

So, 10 years later, how are we doing?

Some thoughts:

• My understanding — though I don’t follow it closely — is that arts and cultural heritage stakeholders are generally pleased with their Legacy Act allocation processes and allocations.

• Similarly, my understanding is the processes in place to allocate Legacy’s parks and trails money generally receives high marks.

• Regarding the approximately $100 million dedicated annually to game, fish and wildlife habitat (more than $500 million since the 2008 approval of the amendment), here’s what Dave Zentner of Duluth, who chaired the first Duck Rally and who has remained close to the allocation and habitat development process ever since, said:

“What we’ve accomplished is enormous. The list of accomplishments is long, and when you look at the habitat projects that have been completed, from trout habitat to grassland and wetland restoration to forest protection, the result is heartwarming."

Not everything is perfect. As Zentner and others note, better landscape-scale habitat project planning is necessary to ensure that when the Legacy Act comes up for renewal in about 20 years, Minnesotans will know their money made a difference.

• The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, a 12-member citizen-legislative body that advises the Legislature on how to spend Legacy game, fish and wildlife habitat money, has been a success. The occasional squabble has erupted. But by and large the council is operating as designed, meaning it accomplishes the vast majority of its work at a high level the vast majority of the time.

• Legacy Act clean water initiatives, meanwhile, are a source of concern. The big problem: Though voters believed by passing the Legacy Act in 2008 that the state’s waters would be considerably cleaner over time, the fact is not enough money exists among all annual Legacy allocations — some $300 million annually — to accomplish that goal. The state just has too much dirty or otherwise polluted water. Which is why Gov. Mark Dayton is pushing hard this legislative session to pass a waterway buffer bill that would establish 50-foot grass or other perennial-cover strips along rivers, ditches, streams and lakes.

The upshot? Minnesotans demonstrated with passage in 2008 of the Legacy Act that they love the state the way it is — or was — and they want it restored and protected, even if they have to raise their own taxes to do it.

Now it’s up to those who distribute and oversee Legacy funds to continue to ensure Minnesota waters, lands and wildlife get what citizens pay for, and what they deserve.

 

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com