While Minnesota is buying land for conservation efforts around the state, officials don't have enough money to properly maintain the forests, wildlife areas and other resources the state already controls, according to a report out this week.
The report released on Monday by the Department of Natural Resources said the state can't afford to properly maintain 5.5 million acres of state-owned lands and public waters access sites administered by the agency.
The annual funding gap is $18.9 million and could grow to $32 million a year if the state continues to buy land at the current rate. That gap could climb to $84 million if the state tries to meet its long-term acquisition goals, which far exceeds the $52 million DNR now spends annually on land management.
The report comes as the state faces a $6.2 billion budget hole, and it raises questions about how DNR will be able to manage public lands entrusted to the agency even if the fiscal situation improves.
It also adds more fuel to an ongoing debate about the Legacy Amendment, which generates about $85 million annually for outdoor projects.
"We need to stop buying land or liquidate some of the land we have," said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, a member of the House committee that oversees the DNR. "We either sell more land or hire more people for DNR. The people driving the Legacy spending ship have exacerbated this problem."
Drazkowski said he plans to introduce legislation to control the growth of state land holdings by requiring the state to sell an acre of land for each new acre it acquires.
Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, who also sits on the environmental and natural resources committee, said the report serves as a "reality check," showing that Minnesota can't keep buying land without setting aside funds to restore and manage those assets. She said Legacy funds could be used to help pay for such efforts.
"We have to act differently than we have in the past," Wagenius said.
Lester Bensch, a member of the advisory body that recommends how to spend Legacy funds on outdoors projects, said the state needs to turn to the private sector for help.
With direction from the DNR, private contractors could be hired to help maintain lands. Dozens of sportsman's groups could also lend a hand by providing labor, Bensch said.
"I see that problem as an opportunity in disguise. ... It's going to be good for the DNR and the private sector to work closer on this," said Bensch, a member of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
The DNR's budget analysis is a response to a critical state legislative auditor's report released 10 months ago that raised questions about the agency's management of public lands. Auditors found that as the state was planning an aggressive land acquisition program, the DNR did not have adequate resources to maintain existing lands.
Auditors also found that in most areas of its operations the agency was not planning well for long-range land management needs and it was falling down in its protection of the state's investment in conservation easements.
In the new report, DNR officials said they are "effectively" managing public resources, but the agency said it could be doing more.
"There is a gap in funding between what is currently available and what is needed to optimally manage these lands and maximize natural resource results in Minnesota," the report concluded.
DNR officials did not respond on Tuesday to a request for comment.
Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777