$68M pointed at wetlands, forests, prairie
- Article by: DOUG SMITH
- Star Tribune
- March 17, 2009 - 9:50 AM
Supporters of a constitutional amendment that increased the state sales tax to fund natural resource conservation expressed elation Monday after the council charged with allocating the money approved a $68.6 million package of 19 conservation projects.
"It's a great day for Minnesota,'' said Mike Kilgore, chairman of the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council.
The package would protect, enhance or restore 232,000 acres, including 129,000 acres of forests, 24,000 acres of prairies and 71,000 acres of wetlands. It leverages another $35 million in matching federal and private dollars.
The largest project secures permanent easements on 187,000 acres of forest and wetlands, mostly in Itasca County, and consumed nearly one-third of council's available funds, $20 million.
How the package will be greeted at the State Capitol is uncertain. The proposals were approved on an 11-1 vote despite concerns by two council members -- both legislators -- that too few Twin Cities metro-area projects were included, and that the package is too heavily weighted toward acquisition of critical lands rather than restoration of habitat.
Legislators could adjust the package.
"It absolutely could be changed,'' said Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, one of the council members who believes the metro area was slighted. She nevertheless voted for the package. "We're not ignoring the metro area, but we're minimizing its importance. What's in there is good, but what's missing is a concern.''
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, one of four legislators on the 12-member panel, cast the only no vote, saying the package leaned too heavily toward acquiring lands and easements and too lightly on restoring wildlife habitat. The state must make payments in lieu of taxes for lands it acquires. Those costs are estimated to be $134,000 yearly, if the council's recommendations are approved by the Legislature.
"There will be trouble passing'' the bill, Hansen said, for those reasons and because of what he called a lack of metro-rural balance.
If legislators significantly alter the package, "there will be a firestorm of protest'' from the public, said Les Bensch, a council member from the Grant County community Ashby. Voters approved the constitutional amendment with the understanding that the council's recommendations would be adopted by the Legislature.
"We represent the wishes of the people,'' Bensch said.
Added Kilgore: "I'm hoping this bill stays intact. I think we did tremendous work given the time constraints we were under.''
The council faced an April 1 deadline to deliver a project list to the Legislature. The package includes projects scattered around the state, including in seven metro-area counties.
Staff writer Dennis Anderson contributed to this report.
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