Alarmed by changes proposed to this year’s $100 million Lessard-Sams outdoors habitat bill, more than 25 conservation groups are urging state legislators to stop undermining the legislative-citizens council that sets priorities for statewide fish and wildlife projects.
Coalition members, who have written a joint letter to all state legislators, are calling attention to what they perceive as politically motivated interference in a process that was designed to fairly and scientifically allocate the annual trove of natural resource money established by Minnesota voters in the 2008 Legacy Amendment.
It’s not the first time conservation groups have rallied to protect the funding choices made by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, but some activists and at least one member of the council believe this year’s intrusions by a Republican-controlled House committee are unprecedented in scope.
“There’s more tinkering, with more abandon, than I’ve ever seen before,” said Jane Kingston, a Lessard-Sams executive committee member from Eveleth.
But state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, who is one of four legislators on the council, said politics has always been a part of the allocation process. Legislative interference with the council’s work may have peaked in 2013, he said, when Democrats controlled both houses and Rep. Phyllis Kahn, D-Minneapolis, marshaled departures from the Lessard-Sams recommendations that were vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Nevertheless, Ingebrigtsen said he will fight to undo two significant changes to this year’s House version of the Lessard-Sams bill that he believes go too far from the council’s wishes.
“It will take a conference committee, and it will get all ironed out,” Ingebrigtsen said.
The current controversy surrounds three amendments adopted by the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee chaired by Rep. Dennis McNamara, R-Hastings.
One of those amendments slashed funding to a Minnesota Deer Hunters Association project to acquire up to 4,000 acres of Potlatch timberland for deer and ruffed grouse habitat in Cass, Wadena and Hubbard counties. The 12-member Lessard-Sams legislative-citizens committee had recommended $5 million for the purchases as part of a plan to also protect groundwater. The land is in an area where pine forests are being converted to corporate farms.
McNamara’s committee cut the appropriation to $1.5 million, saying the Lessard-Sams budget needed a bigger cushion of reserves because of a lowered fiscal forecast.
But Dave Zentner, an outdoors activist and past national president of the Izaak Walton League, said the focus on reserves obscures what likely is a bigger reason the project got cut: Political opposition to taxpayer-funded land acquisitions.
“It represents an activist intervention by the House, in my opinion,” Zentner said.
In the case of the deer hunters association, he said, the group has worked closely with county land managers and would turn the property over to them as designated forest.
“The deer hunters’ project is an enormously good opportunity that needs to go forward,” Zentner said.
Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said McNamara’s committee further demonstrated its distaste for public land deals by amending the Lessard-Sams bill with a provision that would require County Board approval for certain land acquisitions funded by Legacy money.
“That’s at odds with what Minnesotans wanted with the Legacy Amendment,” Morse said.
Ingebrigtsen, assistant minority leader in the Senate, said he wants full funding restored to the deer hunters’ project and rejects the amendment calling for county approval of Legacy land deals. Passing that measure would fundamentally interfere with the property rights of private landowners who wish to participate in Legacy projects, he said.
But Ingebrigtsen said he won’t try to restore a third Lessard-Sams council recommendation that would give White Earth Nation $2.18 million to buy 2,000 acres of forest in Clearwater County. McNamara’s House committee stripped the tribe out of the project and shifted funding to the DNR. McNamara said it makes more sense because the state owns land on three sides of the parcel that would be acquired.
This is the second year in a row that the Legislature has stepped in to nix the White Earth project, which was re-recommended by the Lessard-Sams council in December on a narrow vote.
Morse said the project isn’t being judged by the Legislature on its merits. “Clearly, the fact that there’s a Native American tribe involved is creating some difficulty,” Morse said.
Moreover, he said, Minnesota voters intended for allocations of Legacy Amendment dollars to be decided in the rigorous, fully transparent process followed by the Lessard-Sams council. The council devotes thousands of hours every year vetting proposals and selecting science-based projects that fit state conservation plans.
Morse said reasonable tweaks to the council’s recommendations by the Legislature are understandable. “But we think this goes well beyond tweaking,” he said.
McNamara said this year’s council recommendation for White Earth land acquisition was coupled with an unworkable caveat that any hunting seasons on the purchased land must be the same for everyone. But the land is in ceded territory, and tribes can legally set their own fish and game seasons.
“We are offering a great compromise to protect the land,” McNamara said.
On the deer hunters’ project, McNamara said the organization’s plan could be phased in over a number of years.
Overall, he said, the Lessard-Sams council has been delivering great recommendations and the Legislature has been approving them almost entirely with no change.
“I think we continue to uphold that with this current bill,” he said.