The Farmland and Natural Areas Program started with a big chunk of change -- $20 million -- and a mission to prevent the booming suburbs from gobbling up all the remaining rural areas of Dakota County.

Now, the initial voter-approved cash has been mostly spent, and the building boom that threatened natural areas and an agricultural way of life is no more. As the Dakota County Board contemplates the future of the program -- the first of its kind in the state -- choosing a path is no easy task.

Al Singer, the county's land conservation manager, recently told commissioners that the program is at "a really important proverbial fork in the road."

Efforts so far have protected nearly 9,000 acres across the county, from the naturally and historically significant Pilot Knob area to large swaths of farmland along the Cannon River.

But in the future, he said, money will not be as plentiful, and focusing conservation goals could help get the most benefit for the cost.

"When there are few areas and they're fragmented, they really don't function ecologically," Singer said.

Trade-offs are inevitable. Would a narrowed focus on contiguous land or properties along the high-priority rivers, like the Vermillion, eliminate too many willing participants? What about areas in the northern, more urban parts of the county where available parcels of land are much smaller? Or should the program stay as is and just pick one or two projects annually instead of eight or more?

Currently, nearly 200,000 acres countywide are eligible for participation in the Farmland and Natural Areas Program if the owners choose.

Applications are assigned points based on a variety of criteria, such as proximity to waterways and other protected lands. Then the county works with the willing landowners with the most points to purchase conservation easements that leave the land in the owners' hands, but protect it in perpetuity.

It's a conservation model that has garnered praise from even those who were once skeptical. Dozens of landowners have stepped forward to participate. Still, the results are specks on the county map.

"The intent is to enhance value," County Board Chairman Tom Egan said. "Do you really enhance value if you're really scattered all over the place without a plan?"

With the original bond funds dwindling, the county is relying more on assorted grants -- federal money for farmland protection and state money from the Legacy Amendment for buffers along rivers and streams to improve water quality.

Commissioners voiced support for both those missions, but they questioned just how specific the land protection program should be and agreed it's a big task to tackle with limited funds.

"With limited resources, you won't be able to do much of everything," Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord said.

The board members said they want to ponder the issue a bit more and seek input from residents before making a decision.

"This is really important because it's one thing that's going to last in this county for a long, long time," County Administrator Brandt Richardson said. "You want to do something that will make some sense and hang together."

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056