Anderson: Citizens hold key to conservation deals

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2012 - 1:20 AM

When it comes to spending Outdoor Heritage funds, the state elbows out citizens and private groups at its peril.

Interesting at the meeting Wednesday of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council was the calling before that panel of various conservation-group representatives to explain their "business models,'' as it were, relating to land acquisitions accomplished with Outdoor Heritage Fund money.

Ostensibly, the appearance of Pheasants Forever, the Nature Conservancy and others was to enlighten the council about their relative levels of land-acquisition efficiency. The council wanted assurance the state is getting the biggest bang for its buck when the groups receive Outdoor Heritage Fund money for purchases of wildlife management areas and other lands.

But if you believe that, you're missing the forest for the trees. The intent of the gathering instead, at least in part, was to grill the Trust for Public Land over its attempted purchase for the state of 2,000 acres and 3 miles of shoreline along the Mississippi River north of Brainerd.

Called Mississippi Northwoods, the project, if completed, will cost the state $11 million, a sum the land's seller, Potlatch, has not yet agreed to, believing heretofore that an earlier appraisal of $14 million would be the price it would receive for the property.

But the transaction will get done, or not, at $11 million because state law proscribes, generally, that land purchased by it can't exceed the appraised value.

That Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, a Lessard-Sams Council member, has questioned the project from its outset is widely understood. Never mind that the property is a rare find, with considerable recreational and environmental benefits, in the state's tourist hotbed. Also in this case, as opposed to many others in which large land purchases are considered by the state, local residents and governments support the acquisition enthusiastically -- as has the Lessard-Sams panel as a whole.

Wednesday, Rep. Leon Lillie, DFL-North St. Paul, also expressed reservations, and seemed at times to act as a proxy for fellow House member Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis. Lillie implied strongly that if the Trust for Public Land expects to receive any more money from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which the council helps oversee, it had best change the way it does business.

Taken alone, none of this means much. If the Mississippi Northwoods project is completed, the state will gain significantly, with the Trust for Public Land to thank, and will purchase the property for no more than its appraised value.

The bigger picture is more disturbing. Many in the Legislature -- Wagenius is suspect here, as is Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, among others -- probably wouldn't object if the citizen-dominated Lessard-Sams Council went away. Arm twisting and backroom deals aren't well received by the Average Janes and Joes on the council, some legislators have learned, because the citizens' only interest in serving is to promote conservation statewide, never mind the politics.

Legislators are even more uncomfortable over the receipt by conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Nature Conservancy and, yes, the Trust for Public Land, of Outdoor Heritage Fund money to seek out and complete land acquisitions for the state and to undertake habitat enhancement and development.

Never mind that these groups operate more efficiently and urgently than one of the alternatives -- giving the money to the Department of Natural Resources. Some legislators nevertheless would seem to prefer a greater share of the fund's habitat money go to it or another state bureaucracy, in part because their officials, unlike conservation-group leaders, are keener to pick up the phone when legislators call.

All of which is especially important in light of the announcement Tuesday by DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr that an ambitious statewide prairie-wetland-upland conservation development plan has been agreed to by the DNR and the conservation groups mentioned here, among others.

Landwehr envisions more than $1 billion from the Outdoor Heritage Fund propping up the plan over the next 21-odd years, cash that must be appropriated at optimum efficiencies for the proposal to succeed.

But such effectiveness can only be achieved if the Lessard-Sams Council remains in existence, dominated by citizens, not legislators, thereby downplaying politics' often deleterious effect on such matters.

And only if private conservation groups, not state bureaucracies, continue to lead the Outdoor Heritage Fund's habitat acquisition and development charge.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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