On Friday, House Legacy Committee chair Phyllis Kahn took still more testimony from still more citizens, only to find that each, one after the other, opposed her rewriting of the conservation recommendations forwarded to her panel by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, this following a hearing by Kahn on Thursday in which similar objections were heard.
Nonplused, and abetted by a majority of committee members, Kahn nonetheless steamed ahead with her plan to distribute Legacy Act money from the Outdoor Heritage Fund to projects the council didn’t recommend, and to expend as well some $60 million in the second year of the coming biennium the council didn’t even consider.
Much can be said here, not least that in Kahn, DFL House Speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis has appointed a rogue chair of an important committee. Exactly for what purposes others on that panel elect to dance in her legislative conga line is unclear. But there’s likely a pony in it somewhere for some of them, if only the approximately $6 million in metro parks projects Kahn seeks to fund — the same projects some Lessard-Sams council members characterized collectively, albeit privately, as unworthy even of serious consideration; a joke.
More on Kahn later.
Consider first a question posed Friday to David Hartwell by Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul. Hartwell chairs the Lessard-Sams Council and spent the bulk of his testimony before Kahn’s committee saying that the council is exemplary in execution of its mission.
Reasons cited included the long-term statewide conservation plan the council has developed and requires its funded projects to adhere to, its requirement also that recommended projects be science-based, the diversity of experienced, conservation-minded members who serve on the council, the transparency of its actions and the accountability standards to which it holds recipients of funded projects.
“We have a fair and open process,’’ Harwell said. “I would hope you would give serious consideration to the recommendations we provided you. The process is sound, and the accountability is sound.’’
Hausman responded by saying, in part, to Hartwell:
“I wonder if you can help me. … What I struggle with is that we set up this group [the Lesssard-Sams Council] that ends up with a sense of entitlement about this money … it’s very confusing to me … it’s this sense of entitlement. I’m an outsider. Can you tell me how that cultural thing happened so quickly?’’
A digression: I’ve known Hartwell since 1988, when he significantly helped me and other Minnesota duck hunters purchase a $650,000 helicopter to give to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents to help stop waterfowl poaching on the Gulf Coast.
Additionally, being intimately involved with forming the coalition that ultimately resulted in passage of the Legacy Amendment, I know in specific detail the important role he played in that effort, as well as the vital roles others played, including, importantly, Dave Zentner of Duluth, who also appeared before Kahn’s committee Friday to echo Hartwell’s concerns.
The upshot: I respect greatly the conservation work Hartwell has accomplished over many years on many fronts. But he did Hausman no favors when he nuanced his response, saying, in part, “There are people who feel it’s theirs [the fish, game and wildlife habitat money in the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which the Lessard-Sams Council oversees]. I think it’s unfortunate. I clearly recognize that while I would like you to take our recommendations … that we are advisory.’’
All of which is true, the Lessard-Sams Council is only advisory to the Legislature, because the state’s money can be expended only by elected representatives.
That said, regarding conservation — which concerns not only the quality of life Minnesotans enjoy but, ultimately, over time, their survival — Hausman’s question deserves a broader response.
• Virtually all substantive land and water conservation initiatives in this state, and nationally, have been grass-roots born, not the product of government. From The Nature Conservancy to Ducks Unlimited, the Sierra Club, Pheasants Forever and the Wilderness Society, organizations have been founded over time by highly knowledgeable, consummately dedicated individual conservationists. Nowhere is this truer than in Minnesota, where the Minnesota Waterfowl Association was started, as were Friends of the Boundary Waters, Pheasants Forever, the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, the Minnesota Trout Association and Muskies Inc., among others.
It is true that government at times, though comparatively rarely, also has sparked conservation initiatives. Political leadership is required here, and Teddy Roosevelt provided more of it, to the benefit of more of the nation’s natural resources, than any other government official. Unfortunately, far more often, to the degree government has promoted land, water and air stewardship, it has served less as an originator of conservation programs than as a conduit through which the persistent efforts of citizens have been channeled. More often still, government has opposed conservation progress.
• Example: Dating to the late 1800s, conservation-minded Minnesotans — many of them then duck hunters — railed against government-sponsored wetland drainage, a practice that continued through the 1950s and one that, in coming weeks, might contribute to still more spring flooding.
Recall also that government was the chief obstacle to preserving what ultimately resulted in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, beginning with the airplane ban reluctantly granted in 1950 and continuing through divisive struggles in Congress to pass the 1964 Wilderness Act and its 1978 rewrite.
• Yet nowhere in Minnesota history did government-as-conservation-obstacle manifest itself more strikingly than in the 10-year effort to place the Legacy Act proposal on the 2008 statewide ballot.
Year after year, legislative committee after legislative committee, the Legacy plan to set aside an increased fraction of the state sales tax for conservation was given short shrift.
No one denied what its supporters claimed: that Minnesota and its unique watery landscape were in danger of reaching a tipping point beyond which no return to clean water, restored wetlands, healthy aquifers, conserved prairies, sustainable contiguous forests and other resources would be possible.
In fact, the point was widely conceded. The obstacle instead (as is often the case with resource stewardship) was that many who wielded power could see no immediate, or even near-term, benefit to them or, really, to anyone that outweighed the political capital, imagination and effort that support for the plan would require.
Then, finally, nearly half a generation into the struggle to save the state from itself, a serendipitous convergence occurred. Hartwell and Zentner were key players, but so were hundreds of others, including, finally, important politicians, among them Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL Sen. Tom Bakk and others.
• Yet selling of the Legacy idea to voters, once approved by the Legislature, fell to individual citizens and their organizations. Some were conservation-minded, while others supported parks and trails, the arts and cultural heritage — factions that also would benefit from a broadened Legacy proposal.
Importantly, of these factions, only supporters of that portion of the amendment that would restore, enhance and acquire fish, game and wildlife habitat insisted that a citizen-dominated council of qualified conservationists (and legislators) be formed in law to recommend projects to the Legislature for funding.
The reason: They knew well the nature of politics and the manner and frequency with which conservation funds have been redirected in Minnesota and nationally throughout history. Witness the lottery money here, and, in Washington, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which Congress has raided for some five decades.
So, yes, Rep. Hausman, there is a sense of entitlement among individual Minnesotans — be they pheasant hunters, bicyclists, birders, oboe players or history buffs — about the Legacy Act.
It was their idea, and it exists in the constitution today as testament to their near-obsession with making Minnesota better, despite, in many cases, the objections of legislators.
And nothing riles them more than when politicians disregard not only the will of the people who want their money spent as intended but disregard as well, as Rep. Phyllis Kahn’s Legacy Committee did Thursday and Friday, expert conservation recommendations developed according to a thoughtful, long-term plan to restore key parts of the state’s natural heritage — thereby contributing to a healthy and enjoyable future for all Minnesotans, their children and grandchildren.