Minnesota is blessed with a conservation ethic and interest unlike anywhere in America. So it’s no surprise, and a good thing, that there are always lots of ideas on how best to invest in our outdoors. Yet one approach that singularly serves all interests is the faithful adherence to a statewide conservation strategy.
Thankfully, Minnesota has such a plan, as developed and overseen by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. However, a recent commentary on the council’s efforts (“Sorry, but Legacy funding doesn’t bypass Legislature,” Feb. 21) suggests that greater clarity is in order, along with a recommitment to the council’s work.
The 2008 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to our state Constitution was approved by a majority of Minnesotans from every region of the state, calling for new revenue to be invested in efforts to “restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forests, and habitat for game, fish, and wildlife.”
The law creating the amendment also established a largely citizen council to provide the Legislature with specific direction so that investments would be consistent with the Constitution, with state law and with a statewide conservation strategy. In fact, formation of the council was an unusual but important promise by the Legislature to rely on science and citizen experts in decisionmaking rather than other considerations.
The founding members of the council (including the authors) took this responsibility seriously and developed a long-term statewide conservation strategy driven by good science, which today’s council has followed faithfully with remarkable results.
Over the years, examples include hundreds of thousands of private forestland acres remaining undeveloped and open to the public, and protection of key habitat areas along the Mississippi River, which provides drinking water to almost a million Minnesotans, including in the Twin Cities. Likewise, thousands of acres of wetlands and prairies are being protected.
What led to these decisions was a rigorous, competitive and transparent process starting with the council’s public call for proposals, followed by hearings, testimony from natural-resource experts, and scrupulous project evaluation and ranking in open public meetings.
As the council has done its work, it considered projects that:
• Produce multiple enduring conservation benefits.
• Address opportunities that otherwise would be immediately lost.
• Protect, restore or enhance habitat on state-owned lands or local, county or conservation lands.
• Target unique Minnesota landscapes that have value to fish and wildlife.
• Use a science-based strategic planning and evaluation model to guide protection, restoration and enhancement.
• Address wildlife species of greatest conservation need, including those that are rare, threatened or endangered.
Further, a guiding principle of the council is to ensure that conservation benefits are broadly distributed. This approach is consistent with a recent poll showing that 85 percent of Minnesotans, including nearly 9 of 10 people living in the state’s most populous counties, agree that land protection and wildlife habitat funding should go wherever it will yield the most conservation benefit. In fact, when the converse question was asked, only 9 percent of those polled supported investing more where the most people live.
It may surprise some to know that since the council’s creation, the 3.5 percent of the state’s land mass in the seven-county metro region has received 9.7 percent of the total funding, with an additional 10 percent scheduled under the council’s current recommendations. Altogether this would be more than $41.5 million invested in Minnesota’s most densely populated region.
Given this track record of success, it makes sense to continue the state’s commitment to its conservation ethic and heritage by remaining faithful to the Constitution, the law and the recommendations of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
Michael A. Kilgore is a professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Forest Resources. Darby Nelson is a former DFL member of the Minnesota House. Robert A. Schroeder is former chief of staff to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. All are former members of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.