One needn’t be overly cynical to conclude matters in Washington, D.C., are a mess. Important and vexing problems such as health care and global warming affect everyone. Yet they’re put on the back burner — actually, the back, back burner — while political slugfests continue.
The news is better in Minnesota, where the work of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council stands as a shining example of exemplary government. The council’s 12 members (eight citizens, four legislators) get their good work done on time, generally without bickering and at a minimal cost to taxpayers.
This efficiency was evident again Jan. 15 when council chairman David Hartwell forwarded to Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders the council’s recommendations for $137.5 million in spending to “protect, enhance and restore the state’s prairies, wetlands, forests and fish, game and wildlife habitat.”
The money will conserve 14,232 acres of wetlands, 41,348 acres of prairies, 20,760 acres of forests and 7,177 aces of aquatic habitat.
In its coming session, the Legislature will review the council’s recommendations and, if past is prologue, approve them with only minor changes.
Recall that hunters and anglers, among others, spent more than 10 years prodding the Legislature to place before voters a constitutional amendment that would fractionally increase the state sales tax and dedicate the money to natural resource conservation.
Ultimately, a broader coalition was formed that included environmental groups as well as arts advocates, and the amendment idea — generally referred to as the Legacy Amendment — was finally greenlighted by the Legislature and put on a statewide ballot in November 2008.
Importantly, of the funds the amendment created, including one for clean water, another for arts and cultural heritage, and a third to develop and protect fish, game and wildlife habitat, only the latter, the Outdoor Heritage Fund, would be overseen by a new panel created in statute — the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
Formation of the council to review and recommend heritage fund habitat projects was necessary to gain hunters’ and anglers’ support for the constitutional amendment idea. A 1988 constitutional amendment had been approved by voters creating the state lottery, and soon afterward, legislators broke related conservation-funding promises. Hunters and anglers were in no mood to be hoodwinked again, should the Legacy Amendment be approved, so they demanded a say in how the new game, fish and wildlife funds would be spent.
So it was over the past year the Lessard-Sams council’s charge has been to sift through 42 habitat-project requests it received totaling $324 million to determine which proposals it would recommend with the $137.5 million available this year.
Digressing for a moment, and to place Minnesota’s conservation work in context, it’s important to appreciate that as a nation, including in Minnesota, due in large part to an ever-increasing human population, we are diminishing and/or losing many of our natural resources faster than we can conserve and/or restore them.
The public consciousness about these losses and their potential adverse impacts is rapidly evolving, and, in my view, within a generation or two will manifest itself politically much more powerfully than is now the case — to the point, for example, where the availability of clean surface and subsurface water will essentially be considered an American birthright.
In the meantime, most states have no serious, well-funded programs to mitigate these losses, the primary exception being Minnesota, with its Legacy Amendment, which not only will spend $137.5 million this year for fish, game and wildlife habitat, but the same amount for clean water.
Consider just three of the 41 science-based projects the Lessard-Sams council recommended for funding:
• $7.5 million to buy 607 acres, protect by conservation easement another 157 acres, and restore and enhance another 225 acres all in the greater metro along the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix river corridors. The funds will be matched by conservation groups, private donations and local government contributions, while also engaging significant numbers of volunteers. The project’s goal, now in its 10th year of recommended funding by the council, is to benefit “wildlife and species in greatest need of conservation while providing increased public access for wildlife-based recreation.”
• $2.1 million to protect cold-water fisheries on the North Shore. This project, again, science-based, is headed by the Minnesota Land Trust. Recognizing that native brook trout and naturalized steelhead, salmon and brown trout populations are dependent on conducive flows and temperatures of North Shore streams, this effort will “strategically procure conservation easements and undertake targeted restoration efforts within high-quality watersheds.”
• $5.4 million to restore and protect shallow lakes and wetlands in Big Stone, Clay, Cottonwood, Kandiyohi, Lyon, McLeod, Murray, Sibley and Swift counties. Ducks Unlimited (DU) leads this project, now in its ninth funding cycle. Having identified key tracts for sale adjacent to state wildlife management areas (WMAs), DU will use its biologists and engineers to “prioritize lands with restorable wetlands and prairie ... with relatively high biological diversity and significance based on the Minnesota DNR County Biological Survey (MCBS) to improve the ecological functionality of existing public WMAs” not only for ducks, but also for pheasants, butterflies and a host of songbirds and other wildlife. All purchased lands, once restored, will be given to the state as WMAs.
In addition to Hartwell, members of the Lessard-Sams council include Jamie Swenson; Ashley Peters; Denny McNamara; Kristin Eggerling; Mark Holsten; Ron Schara; Tom Saxhaug; Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn; Rep. Dan Fabian; Sen. Andrew Lang; and Sen. David Tomassoni.
All are volunteers, with the exception of legislators. Each deserves our thanks.