Push is on to save a chunk of the Mississippi for the people

  • Article by: BILL MARCHEL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 20, 2011 - 8:54 PM

This story actually started more than a dozen years ago when Minnesotans with foresight enough to realize this state needed to do more to protect our valuable natural resources began an effort to add a dedicated sales tax to our existing sales tax. The dedicated tax would go directly to the outdoors.

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Against a backdrop of fall color, a duck hunter tossed a decoy while his dog looked on. A proposal to preserve this section of the Mississippi River is one of 43 being considered by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council for 2012.

Photo: Bill Marchel, Special to the Star Tribune

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BRAINERD - Last week a group of about 35 people gathered here to discuss the future of a valuable piece of property lining the Mississippi River north of town. The roughly 2,000 acres is owned by Potlach Corporation. It includes about 2.5 miles of pristine, undeveloped shoreline along the Mississippi.

To protect this distinct property from development, an estimated $14.5 million will be required in fiscal year 2013.

The anticipated purchase, titled Mississippi River Northwoods Habitat Complex, is one of 43 projects totaling $207 million dollars proposed to the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, a 12-member group that will be considering those projects for recommendation to the 2012 Legislature. There is about $90 million available.

This story actually started more than a dozen years ago when Minnesotans with foresight enough to realize this state needed to do more to protect our valuable natural resources began an effort to add a dedicated sales tax to our existing sales tax. The dedicated tax would go directly to the outdoors.

After years of battling, the tax became a reality in 2008. On July 1, 2009, 3/8 of 1 percent was tacked on to our existing sales tax. The additional tax raises roughly $300 million per year with about $100 million for wildlife, $100 million for clean water, $45 million for parks and trails, $55 million for arts.

Last week's meeting, chaired by Todd Holman of The Nature Conservancy and Becca Nash of The Trust for Public Land, two heavy hitters in this attempted land acquisition, was attended by a variety of interest groups. Hunting and angling groups, as well as ATVers, bicyclists, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers and individuals with general interests all expressed their concerns.

"This land is amazing habitat for fish and wildlife," Holman said. "In the spring ducks gather during migration to feed on the abundant wild rice until the lakes open up later. The undeveloped shoreline provides important spawning territory for fish."

Added Nash, "Our primary goal is to get the land into public ownership."

Blanding's turtles, listed by the state as a threatened species, and red-shouldered hawks, considered a species of concern by the state, reside on the land.

Holman explained that if the land could be purchased it would link other adjoining properties already in public ownership to establish a 9-mile stretch of protected natural river shoreline.

This week the Lessard-Sams council will make the first cut from the 43 proposed projects.

"I'm optimistic the Mississippi River Northwoods project will make it," Holman said. "I have great confidence any issues that arise from the diverse interest groups can be solved."

This section of the Mississippi River is of personal importance to me. When I was 14 years old I shot my first duck along this gorgeous stretch. For the past four decades I've hunted, fished and photographed this diverse segment of river.

Ducks, especially wild rice-loving ring-necked ducks, gather by the thousands during spring to rest and refuel on the abundant wild rice for the flight north. During summer, largemouth bass lurk beneath floating vegetation, just waiting for my lure to pass. In early fall, wood ducks and blue-winged teal leap from the yellow, frost-nipped wild rice and fly against a backdrop of shoreline vegetation aglow with crimson, gold and orange.

For this 2,000 acres to be sold and developed would be a heartbreak to me and the thousands of others who recreate there.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors columnist and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

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