Gov. Mark Dayton will propose to the Legislature this session that all waterways in the state be buffered with strips of grass or other cover perhaps 50 feet wide — a plan he knows will be opposed at the Capitol by some farm groups and landowners.

Speaking to the annual Department of Natural Resources Roundtable on Friday in Brooklyn Park, Dayton said his proposal would provide 125,000 acres of additional habitat for pheasants and other wildlife, while also helping to clean the state's waters.

The lack of river, stream and ditch buffers accelerates erosion and washes silt and farmland chemicals downstream, experts have said.

As much as 98 percent of the state's farm country belongs to farmers and other individuals, Dayton said, "But the water belongs to all of us, and to all who will follow us.''

The governor's proposal was unexpected, and Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr indicated he learned of Dayton's decision only recently. Dayton had not informed the Farm Bureau or other agriculture groups of the plan prior to his announcement.

Any cost of the proposal, Dayton suggested, would be covered by levied fines.

"To my mind, the strength of the proposal is in its simplicity,'' Dayton said. "I will propose that the buffer requirement . . . be enforced by the DNR through aerial and other inspections . . . with escalating fines for non-compliance,''

Responding to Dayton's plan, Bruce Peterson, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and a farmer near Northfield, said his group "looks forward to reviewing Gov. Dayton's buffer proposal when more details are made available.''
"(Farmers) are proud of our past conservation leadership and improvements, and we'll continue working to be even better in the future," Peterson said.

In December, at a Pheasant Summit the governor and the DNR convened in Marshall, about 300 people attended, and a major complaint was the lack of enforcement of the state's waterway buffering laws, particularly in southern and western Minnesota, which generally are administered by counties and townships.

Following Dayton to the roundtable lectern, Landwehr said the DNR will convene a committee comprising state and federal agencies, soil and water conservation districts and conservation group leaders to develop a pheasant restoration program by spring.

The plan will incorporate Dayton's proposed waterway buffer changes, assuming approval by the Legisalture.

"There are also a lot of private landowners who think we need to do a better job,'' of habitat development, Landwehr said, suggesting not everyone in farm country will oppose Dayton's initiative. "We will be working very closely with agriculture'' on this project.

Success of Dayton's proposal and any pheasant initiative will be measured by the amount of additional habitat established in the state's pheasant country, Landwehr said, adding that pheasant habitat restoration is important even to Minnesotans who don't hunt.

"Why should someone in the Twin Cities care about pheasants?'' Landwehr said. "The pheasant is the 'canary in the coal mine.' This is about quality of life in Minnesota.''

Meanwhile, Dayton said his agriculture commissioner, Dave Frederickson, who previously has suggested existing waterway buffer laws and rules be abandoned, given the lack of compliance to them, will soon issue a statement, or be available to the media, to clarify his comments.

Dayton said Frederickson's job is to represent agriculture, and that he welcomed his input on waterway buffers.