Minnesota's wildlife management area system -- nearly 1,400 public areas totaling 1.3 million acres of habitat around the state -- is treasured by state hunters.
Each fall, the public lands are tramped by thousands of hunters. The lands also provide prime habitat for non-game wildlife, such as songbirds and swans.
Those public prairies, wetlands and forests also are open for trappers, wildlife watchers, photographers and others who seek wild places. And the lands also prevent erosion and improve water quality.
Since the system started in 1951 under the "Save the Wetlands'' program, it has been slowly growing as the state and conservation groups add additional parcels. A citizens committee comprised of conservation group members recommended in 2002 that the state acquire 700,000 additional acres over 50 years -- including 200,000 in the first 10 years -- to meet rising demands for wildlife and recreation by a growing population.
The goal isn't being met. During the past 10 years, the Department of Natural Resources has acquired 51,000 acres of WMA lands, either through purchase from willing sellers or donations, at a cost of $62 million.
But increasingly, some legislators, county officials and farm groups are questioning the state's policy of acquiring lands. Their concerns clash head-on with hunting and other conservation groups, who say land acquisition should remain a key component of wildlife habitat preservation.
Among those expressing concern recently over land acquisitions:
• Chris Radatz, public policy director for the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said his members are concerned Outdoor Heritage Fund dollars from the Legacy Amendment will "lead to a huge land grab,'' and he urged officials to consider other options.
• At least 16 counties in the state, mostly in the north, have passed resolutions saying they want "no net gain'' of public land. Land acquisition is a "big concern'' for counties, said Annalee Garletz, policy analyst for the Association of Minnesota Counties. One worry, she said, is payment in lieu of taxes (PILT), which the state pays annually to compensate counties for taking land off the tax rolls.
• The Grant County Board recently rejected a request by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to buy 370 acres for a federal waterfowl production area, a program that provides wildlife lands for public hunting and other uses, similar to the state's wildlife management areas. The county rejected the request, even though the Fish and Wildlife Service, like the state, compensates counties for removing land from tax rolls. "It's prime wildlife habitat,'' said Don Kleven of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Having a county reject an acquisition "is infrequent but not unusual,'' he said. "Some counties always turn us down.'' The agency will appeal to a state board that usually OKs the purchases.
• Legislators have increasingly questioned the acquisition of lands with Outdoor Heritage Fund dollars and by the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), which recommends spending of lottery dollars. Legislators have asked the Legislative Auditor to look at DNR landholdings and easements, and a report is expected soon. Also at issue for the Outdoor Heritage Fund dollars from the Legacy Amendment is the definition of "protect, enhance and restore.''
"We didn't use the word 'buy,' we used 'protect,' " said Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis. "Protect includes prevent. We need fish barriers [for example] to keep Asian carp from coming up the Mississippi River. That's prevention. Do I support buying public lands? Absolutely. We should be buying the best of the best."
But she said money also is needed to restore and manage habitat on those and existing public lands. "When we get a piece of land, it comes with management costs and PILT payment costs," she said.
The state paid about $5 million in 2009 for PILT payments for wildlife management areas, part of $22 million in PILT payments for state lands, including tax-forfeited lands. That money comes from the state's general fund.
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, is another legislator who has raised concerns about land acquisition. He sits on the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which recommends how Outdoor Heritage Fund dollars are spent. The council recently recommended protecting 16,000 acres, nearly 10,000 through acquisition, for fiscal years 2011-13. Acquisition would total about $23 million of the $59 million to be spent.
"I'm not anti-acquisition," Hansen said. "But the acquisition has to be prioritized and targeted to the best, most-needed places. We need to take care of the many properties we already own."
At a hearing Monday, some legislators questioned a proposal by the LCCMR to spend $6.7 million to acquire wildlife lands.
"We should look less at acquisition and more at management and investment in existing holdings and easements we have," said Rep. Ron Shimanski, R-Silver Lake. Private landowners sometimes have to compete with the DNR or conservation groups to buy land, he said.
The state's legacy
But conservation groups, legislators and others say land acquisition is a vital part of wildlife habitat protection. They say that with the state population expected to grow, demand for public lands will increase while land costs rise. A citizen budget oversight committee recommended last year that the Legislature increase WMA funding.
Unlike some temporary easements, it permanently protects grasslands, wetlands and forests. And while easements acquired on private lands have no public access, acquired lands are open to the public.
"The wildlife management area system is a key component of our outdoor recreation system," said Mike Kilgore, a hunter, University of Minnesota professor and chair of the Lessard-Sams Council.
The main funding for those lands has been a surcharge on small game hunting licenses, hunting license fees, Critical Habitat license plates, lottery proceeds and bonding. John Edmund, director of Explore Minnesota Tourism, told legislators that travel to parks, trails and other recreational lands is a big part of the state's $11 billion travel industry, producing 245,000 jobs.
Said Garry Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for Change, "A lot of hunters can't afford their own private hunting land.''
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said public lands attract hunters and others who bring revenue to counties. "We have the right to hunt and fish in Minnesota, but if you don't have access, what good is it?" he said. "St. Paul and the Legislature are thinking less about our hunting and fishing heritage and are forgetting about what makes life special in Minnesota.''
Doug Smith • email@example.com