Fifteen wildlife habitat restoration projects in large metro regional parks were shut out of recommendations for the latest round of Legacy spending on wildlife habitat preservation, igniting a debate about whether the metro area is being shortchanged and giving rise to an attempt to restore the funds.

So far, the metro area has gotten just 10 percent of the money Minnesota voters approved to protect and improve the state's wildlife habitat in the 2008 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which raises money through a statewide sales tax. This year the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council — which recommends worthy habitat projects to the Legislature — turned down a joint request of $6.4 million for 15 habitat projects in large metro regional parks. It recommended funding for about $9 million in other metro projects.

The issue has sparked new discussion about whether metro wildlife habitat is as deserving of the heritage funds as habitat in greater Minnesota — and whether the metro area, home to 54 percent of the state's population and the source of most of the Legacy funding, deserves a larger share.

Some counter that the metro area has received more than should be expected, since it accounts for only 3.5 percent of the state's land. A letter sent to all legislators last Thursday by 20 hunting, fishing and conservation groups said "science, not demographics, should dictate where and how Outdoor Heritage Funds are allocated."

Lessard Council officials said the metro projects' application was late and flawed, but 35 legislators in the House wanted to give the metro parks the money anyway. The funds were included in the overall Legacy funding bill that the state House of Representatives passed last Friday. The Senate is expected to take up the bill this week.

Wildlife in the metro

Metro park officials say their prairie, woodlands, wetlands and lakes are as deserving as those outstate.

In metro parks designated as preserves, most land is not developed for recreation but is kept as wildlife habitat where people can see birds and animals and fishing and limited hunting is permitted, said Arne Stefferud, manager of regional parks and natural resources for the Metropolitan Council.

Scott County recently hosted a turkey hunt for disabled veterans, for example. Bow hunting of deer is common in some parks in the fall. And several regional parks offer fishing piers and boat launches, making them the primary fishing opportunity in the metro area, Stefferud said.

Given the value to metro residents, wildlife habitat in regional parks has a legitimate claim to some — but certainly not half — of the habitat funds, Stefferud said. "We are only seven counties out of 87 so you can't make the argument that we should be getting 54 percent of the money."

Since passage of the amendment, $41.6 million has been spent on metro habitat out of a total of more than $400 million.

Many of the Lessard council members, who are looking for habitat that sustains animals such as moose, ducks, pheasants and grouse, thought the metro application belonged in the parks and trails funding category. The Legacy amendment sends 14.25 percent of the money it collects to parks and trails and about 33 percent to wildlife habitat.

Many of the proposed metro habitat projects focus on restoring prairie for game and non-game wildlife.

Ramsey County Parks wants to restore 72 acres of prairie as nesting grounds for waterfowl at Battle Creek Regional Park. Anoka County is seeking $270,000 to turn 120 acres of farmland into prairie and woodlands in Mississippi West Regional Park. Dakota County asked for $60,000 to stop erosion along spring-fed trout brook and $500,000 to restore 100 acres of prairie.

Many of the natural areas in the metro regional parks are used by waterfowl for nesting or migration, and in several cases the areas to be restored are next to wildlife preserves that are open to hunting.

"I don't think you can just dismiss the metro area as an area that does not provide fishing and hunting," said John VonDeLinde, director of Anoka County Parks.

'Not traditional parks'

The discussion began when some legislators privately asked the Lessard council to channel more funding to the metro area this year. The council's staff asked the Metropolitan Council to bundle all 15 metro projects. The Met Council complied, but it submitted an application of 150 pages that came in late and was flawed in other ways, according to Lessard council staff. The application did not make the cut.

Lessard Council Chairman David Hartwell said council members do not have an anti-metro bias. "The projects that came in were not in my opinion well thought out or a good use of money," he said.

At a time when the state is losing prairie to farming in the west and Mississippi River bluffs are becoming overgrown with vegetation, the discussion is about the best place to spend the money to preserve the most animal habitat, Hartwell said.

"We need to do something in every area," Hartwell said. The question is "where is the bang for the buck?"

Three Rivers Park District associate superintendent Boe Carlson said the debate has set the stage for greater potential funding in the future. "It's raised the awareness that we're not traditional parks," Carlson said. "We really are a different breed and we do provide wildlife habitat."