Dennis Anderson: Habitat is Pheasants Forever’s goal

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 8, 2011 - 11:24 PM

Pheasants Forever organizes habitat projects using Legacy Funds, often working cheaper and quicker than government, and bringing its own money to the table.

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A buffer strip planted in Minnesota farm country to reduce runoff and preserve topsoil while providing cover for wildlife is one of thousands of Pheasants Forever habitat projects nationwide.

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Hunters looking for the short story about prospects for Saturday's pheasant opener are in luck: It'll be tough out there. A frigid, snowy winter and wet spring, together with the further loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres, have put a dent in Minnesota's ringneck population.

Still, if you've got enough dog power ahead of you and a little boot leather to spare, chances are you'll put up a few birds.

Unfortunately, when the subject is upland conservation, the short story option isn't available. The business of conserving the state's remaining upland and wetland habitat is complex, as is the business of purchasing, restoring and enhancing new habitat. Involved are lots of people, lots of work and, oftentimes, lots of money.

How those three -- people, work, money -- are brought together by Pheasants Forever (PF) to improve the state's natural resources is what we'll look at today, particularly how PF helps channel money from the state's Legacy Amendment into the ground in the form of federal waterfowl production areas, state wildlife management areas and other improvements.

I've long been familiar with Pheasants Forever, and am prejudiced in its favor, in no small part because, in 1982, I, together with a handful of friends, incluing Jeff Finden, Norb Berg and Bob Larson, among others, founded the group. At the time I was the St. Paul Pioneer Press outdoors columnist, and used that platform to argue for a member-based advocacy and working group to protect and develop upland (and wetland) habitat, while also pressing governments to enact legislation and policies that buffer streams to reduce runoff, plant cover crops on marginal farmland to prevent erosion and stop wetland drainage.

Except as a life member, I am no longer affiliated with PF -- which today has more than 130,000 members nationwide and annual revenues of $50 million -- and haven't been for a dozen years or so. But after serving as its founding president, and a member of its executive committee for 15 years, and helping, with other staff and volunteers, to put in place many of the group's policies and procedures that stand yet today -- each intended, in whole or part, to safeguard the group's mission and integrity -- I view goings-on there as an uncle might those of a distant niece or nephew: staying out of the way, but hoping for the best.

Putting Legacy funds to work

On Thursday in Pipestone County, in the far southwest part of the state, wildlife lovers of various stripes gathered to dedicate the expansion of a state wildlife management area funded with Legacy Amendment money -- the first ever such purchase -- and with money from PF, the Nature Conservancy, the landowners and other partners.

Recall that in 2008 nearly 60 percent of Minnesota voters approved a state constitution amendment raising the sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent, with about a third of funds raised annually (about $85 million next year) dedicated to fish, game and wildlife habitat. Another third is set aside for clean water, with the remainder going to the arts and cultural heritage.

Also in 2008, the 12-member (eight citizens, four legislators) Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council was established by the Legislature to recommend fish, game and wildlife habitat projects to it.

I was a big supporter of the Lessard-Sams Council as proposed, and am a bigger supporter now. It may not be perfect. But it remains the most thoughtful, egalitarian and least political government or quasi-government body ever to partake in conservation in Minnesota -- far better than the Legislature acting alone.

That said, what is the process by which Legacy Amendment money is expended for fish, game and wildlife habitat, and what role do nonprofit conservation groups -- in this case, Pheasants Forever -- play in that expenditure?

A look at a $3.5 million grant awarded Pheasants Forever last year by the Legislature, following a recommendation by the Lessard-Sams Council, is instructive:

• Pheasants Forever, together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, developed the grant request.

• The request proposed the purchase of lands from willing sellers that would be converted to federal waterfowl production areas. Properties included a total of 546 acres in Kandiyohi, Otter Tail and Swift counties.

• Before the grant request, each property was assessed for its wildlife and other conservation values by the Fish and Wildlife Service, first by its local managers, then in the Twin Cities by staff headed by Jim Leach, refuge supervisor for the service's Great Lakes-Big Rivers Region. The properties also met PF's conservation mission and standards.

• Also before submitting the funding request, negotiations were completed with landowners, as were property appraisals (estimated), environmental plans, land surveys and restoration plans. This work is detailed and time-consuming, and much of it was done by PF director of conservation programs Joe Pavelko, together with PF regional wildlife biologists.

• Why doesn't the Fish and Wildlife Service alone purchase the land (and, similarly, why not DNR, when state wildlife management areas are purchased)? Because PF (and other nonprofits entering into similar partnerships) often work quicker and cheaper and have better relations than the state or feds with landowners and local governments. Additionally, PF brings matching funds to the table raised by local chapters and other sources, and often pays for property restoration, as needed.

• These and other details were included in PF's $3.5 million proposal to the Lessard-Sams group last year. Council deliberation followed, during which members rated it against other proposals (each member rates each proposal, and the members' cumulative ratings represent the council's rating). Then the council forwarded its top picks to the Legislature, including PF's $3.5 million, which legislators approved.

• But the money didn't flow directly to PF. Instead it went to the DNR, whose staff wrote a detailed contract saying how the funds could be spent. Example: Only direct costs associated with acquiring the land could be billed -- meaning, ultimately, that writing the proposal, completing the purchase and undertaking needed restoration would cost PF significantly more money than the relatively small amount ($34,000) it would be paid by the grant. "We commit a significant amount of our own resources to do these projects,'' said PF government grants coordinator Ron Leathers, "because they're important to the delivery of our mission.''

• PF typically holds purchased properties for up to a year, until they can be transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service or DNR. During this time, PF pays any property taxes, insurance and other costs.

Partners put together

In Pipestone County on Thursday, landowners Allen and Debs Dubbeldee gathered with a bevy of Pheasants Forever volunteers and staff, DNR staff and others to formally dedicate 233 new acres of a now-1,000-acre state wildlife management area.

Members of local PF chapters were particularly pleased. As is the case with PF chapters nationwide, money they raise for habitat stays at the local level, providing them incentive to further conservation in their backyards. This fund-raising structure was unique when PF was founded, and it contributes to its overall efficiency: 91 cents of every dollar it raises, according to federal audits, pays for its habitat and public awareness missions, with only 9 cents assigned to overhead, a figure largely unmatched among nonprofits.

Total cost of the Pipestone County project was $583,000, of which $385,000 came from Legacy money, and the remainder from Pheasants Forever chapters, the Pheasants Forever national office, the Nature Conservancy, the Dubbeldees and others, including the federal government.

That's a lot of partners, in a conservation deal that took a couple of years to complete.

Who put it all together?

Pheasants Forever.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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  • Landowners and donors Allen Dubbledee, second from left, and his wife, Debs, were joined by Pipestone County PF President Marty Wallin, left, and other PF staff and volunteers, and DNR staff, Thursday to dedicate a new wildlife area.

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