Prairies, wetlands and forests will be protected, federal and state wildlife lands coveted by hunters will be expanded and enhanced, and miles of shoreline will be restored under $97 million in projects funded this year by the Outdoor Heritage Fund.
The 34 projects range from $442,000 to buy fragmented forest parcels in Cass County and open them to the public, to $9 million to acquire about 900 acres of prairie and wetlands in southern Minnesota, which will become part of the state's wildlife management area system.
In all, about 75,000 acres statewide will be enhanced or restored, including 9,300 acres that would be bought and opened to the public and 6,200 acres that would be protected with conservation easements.
"It's a lot of habitat,'' said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which recommends to the Legislature how to spend the money. This is the seventh year of Outdoor Heritage funding since the passage in 2008 of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.
Not only will wildlife habitat be boosted for pheasants, ducks and other game, but many of the projects should help clean up rivers and lakes and provide habitat for pollinators, songbirds and other wildlife, Johnson said.
While the projects are statewide, three-fourths will be in the southwest. There, about 1,900 acres of native prairie will be acquired and 2,100 acres of native prairie will be restored and enhanced.
Local governments, agencies and conservation groups propose and coordinate the projects. Ducks Unlimited is leading the $9 million acquisition of 900 acres that will become state wildlife management areas, open to the public. Most of those parcels will be additions to existing wildlife areas, said Jon Schneider of Ducks Unlimited.
"Prairie wildlife is in dire need of habitat — we've lost more habitat than anywhere else,'' Schneider said. "Not only is the plight of the mallards affected, but so is the plight of monarch butterflies.''
Pheasants Forever is coordinating two projects totaling $15 million to accelerate acquisition of about 1,800 acres in the southwest that will be restored to grasslands or wetlands and will become federal waterfowl production areas (WPAs) or state wildlife management areas (WMAs).
All of the land will be bought from willing sellers, and most acreage will be additions to existing WPAs or WMAs, said Eran Sandquist of Pheasants Forever.
"Our goal is to accelerate habitat protection, primarily in the prairie pothole region,'' he said. Both projects have received money every year from the Outdoor Heritage Fund.
"We're having a true impact, you can see it on the ground,'' Sandquist said.
The Department of Natural Resources will get $23 million for seven projects. Some 29,000 acres of grasslands on existing WMAs and scientific and natural areas (SNAs) will be restored and enhanced over the next five years by roving crews, at a cost of $4.8 million.
Another $4.5 million will purchase land for the WMA and SNA systems, and $4.5 million will be used for aquatic habitat protection, including buying easements on trout streams.
The Heritage Fund dollars are having a big impact on the landscape and the ability of the DNR to improve wildlife habitat, said the DNR's Grant Wilson.
"We would not be able to get the amount of protection, enhancement and restoration work done without this funding source," Wilson said. "It's a big deal.''
Here are other projects that will be funded starting July 1:
• $8.4 million for a grant program for smaller conservation projects that groups and local governments propose.
• $4.5 million to purchase permanent easements for buffer strips for clean water and wildlife habitat.
• $4 million to protect 800 acres of prairie-wetland-savanna, restore 150 acres and enhance 6,000 acres of the same habitat in the southwest.
$3.7 million to enroll 760 acres of native prairie into perpetual easements.
• $3.4 million to permanently protect about 1,100 acres of native prairie and wetland complexes in the southwest.
• $3 million to protect, enhance and restore about 920 acres in the Mississippi River headwaters region.
• $2.9 million to acquire 523 acres of forest and 80 acres of prairie along trout streams in the southeast, and enhance 56 acres of prairie.
• $2.4 million to protect about 5,400 acres of shallow lake, wetlands and stream banks in the Shell Rock River watershed in Freeborn County.
• $2.3 million to restore 23 miles of channelized river into 50 miles of natural channel on the Wild Rice River in Norman County; another 1,850 acres also would be restored.
• $2.1 million to protect up to 1,500 acres of forest habitat near the Crow River in Cass and Wadena counties.
• $2.1 million for shallow lake and wetland habitat work in eight counties.
• $2 million to protect 245 acres, restore 81 acres and enhance 489 acres of river corridor in the Twin Cities area.
• Thirteen other projects, ranging from $444,000 to $1.9 million. Among them are restoring shoreline along Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis and Lake Bemidji in Bemidji, restoring various trout streams, and obtaining conservation easements on important bird areas.
For the first time, the Legislature killed a project recommended by the Lessard Council, a $2.2 million proposal to buy 2,000 acres in the White Earth Indian Reservation from Potlatch Corp. The area would be owned by the tribe but open to the public.
Legislators balked, in part, because they didn't want to use taxpayer money to buy land that would be owned by a sovereign band.
The proposal has been resubmitted by the band.