Saving and restoring grasslands and wetlands in Minnesota’s ever-shrinking prairie region is once again a major focus of spending by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
The state-formed group that annually allocates more than $100 million in dedicated sales tax revenue to enhance habitat for fish, game and wildlife is poised Thursday to recommend up to 38 projects for legislative approval in 2017. Twenty of those proposed projects ask for funding to counteract continued losses of prairie lands and wetlands, mostly to farming.
“Prairies will still be a big focus,” Lessard-Sams Council Chairman Bob Anderson said.
But Anderson said the working slate of projects now supported by a super-majority of the 12-member council includes a diverse mix of initiatives also applying to natural conservation work in forests, along streams and around lakes. The projects will be discussed and voted on Thursday at the State Office Building in St. Paul.
Some of the key projects favored by the council are $4.6 million to acquire 2,250 acres of wilderness bordering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), $4.4 million for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to acquire hunting and outdoor recreation land, $2.4 million for trout habitat improvements on a dozen cold-water streams, and $2.4 million to acquire 7,000 to 8,000 acres of forest in St. Louis County for management of deer, ruffed grouse and other wildlife.
Many of the projects supported for funding in 2017 are new phases of plans already under way. Pheasants Forever, for instance, is positioned to get up to $11.1 million for “Phase IX” of its plans to encase 6,800 acres of strategic grasslands and wetlands for public hunting. Many of the potential projects are additions to existing State Wildlife Management Areas and State Waterfowl Production Areas.
In its proposals, Pheasants Forever noted that Minnesota is on the cusp of losing more than 500,000 acres of wildlife habitat with the expiration of federal farm bill contracts that have paid farmers to idle land for conservation purposes.
“Now, more than ever, is the time to accelerate our investments in permanently protected high-quality public habitat complexes,” the organization wrote. “Providing public areas for Minnesotans to hunt, trap, fish and otherwise recreate in the outdoors are urgent needs and is fundamental to ensure Minnesota’s outdoor heritage.”
The funding source for projects recommended by the Lessard-Sams Council is the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which receives sales tax revenue from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment adopted overwhelmingly in 2008 by Minnesota voters. The Legacy Amendment increased the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent, and a third of the money goes to the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Another third goes to the Clean Water Fund, and the rest goes to arts, cultural heritage, parks and trails.
This year’s recommended dispersals by the Lessard-Sams Council would range across the state, all the way down to heavily farmed Martin County, south of Interstate 90 between Jackson and Fairmont. There, the Fox Lake Conservation League Inc. has been putting together a corridor of more than 300 acres of land and converting it to grounds for waterfowl hunting, deer hunting and trapping. Chairman Anderson has recommended an allocation of $823,000 for the project.
“We are pretty shy on public land in Martin County,” said Doug Hartke, grant coordinator for the Fox Lake Conservation League. “We’re trying to get more habitat in our own backyard.”
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Lessard-Sams Council, said council members have been voicing their desire to fund more projects the size of the Fox Lake proposal. If the council were to go along with jumbo requests, such as the $20 million asked for this year by Ducks Unlimited for a shallow lakes and wetlands project, it could only recommend funding for five or six projects a year, Johnson said.
“The council is not happy with people asking for the sky,” he said.
Said Anderson: “I personally would like to see some more smaller projects and projects that provide sooner completion.”
The average recommended project allocation this year is less than $6 million, Johnson said, and council members have shown a liking recently for “one and done” requests that aren’t proposed in long phases. If a long-term project is funded in extended phases, it means the proposer has been doing an excellent job, Johnson said.
For the council to support as many projects as it has this year, members have recommended allocations sometimes far below what the proposer asked for. The Ducks Unlimited request for $20 million, for instance, is now recommended to receive $5.75 million.
In the discussion and voting on Thursday, the council could change allocations now recommended by chairman Anderson. Those decisions will hinge in part on the larger question surrounding the cutoff in total funding this year.
Anderson originally proposed an overall spending amount of $112.7 million, but that could be lowered by $8.6 million or more based on discussion of an expected shortfall in tax receipts.
“The vast majority [of proposers] will not get their full amount,” Anderson said.
In his allocation recommendation this year, the chairman chose only two projects for full funding.
One is an enhancement project for Lake Wakanda proposed by Kandiyohi County for $921,100. The lake is part of a prairie chain of lakes near Willmar that is stocked with walleyes and provides habitat for ducks, migratory shorebirds and colonial nesting birds. The lake is overpopulated by carp and choked by excessive nutrients from farm and municipal runoff. The county’s request is for money to build water control structures and fish barriers at four locations.
Also worthy of full funding, according to Anderson, is The Conservation Fund’s partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to acquire 2,250 acres of wilderness bordering the BWCA on three sides. The state’s share would be $4.6 million to acquire the land from Potlatch Corp.
Otherwise, according to the proposal, the property could be acquired by mining interests or carved up into residential lots to be marketed as “on the edge of the wilderness.” The so-called “Bushmen Lake” proposal would allow for primitive camping on the land and protect critical habitat for Canada lynx and moose, a species of special concern in Minnesota.
“We’re seeing more diversity in applications, and that’s good,” Anderson said.