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Two environmental panels debating best ways to spend state resources

Two panels that both recommend environmental projects to state lawmakers are at the early stages of working through their differences and charting a course to work together.

At a Tuesday hearing in St. Paul, members of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) and the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (OHC) spent three hours with a facilitator to hash out their differences and similarities, both real and perceived.

The LCCMR, which deals with projects that are paid primarily by Minnesota Lottery money, has recommended several different types of projects to lawmakers over the years that include environmental education, scientific research and land acquisition. There is $25.6 million for the LCCMR to recommend in 2010 from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which is supported by Lottery proceeds.

The OHC, which just completed its first year of work recommending projects that are paid by a new constitutional sales tax increase, mostly deals with land acquisition and buying conservation easements. The Outdoor Heritage Fund is projected to have $78.5 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2010, according to the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget.

“They have much the same purposes, but the Outdoor Heritage Fund is much more targeted,” said state Sen. Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, an LCCMR member.

During the hearing, however, members of both panels expressed concern that OHC’s approach is too narrowly focused on habitat for hunting and fishing.

“I question if Lessard-Sams isn’t being too narrow in what it requires to protect,” said Jeff Broberg, a LCCMR member and geologist from Elba.

The OHC is named after former state Sen. Bob Lessard, a DFLer and renowned fishing guide from International Falls, and the late Sen. Dallas Sams, a DFLer from Staples who died of brain cancer in March 2007.

OHC was created by state lawmakers after Minnesota voters in the 2008 general election agreed to increase the state’s sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent to pay for environmental and cultural projects. The OHC recommends projects for 33 percent of the new dedicated sales tax money, which went into effect July 1.

The constitutional language that governs the Outdoor Heritage Fund refers specifically to fish, game and wildlife.

Bob Schroeder, an OHC member and former deputy chief of staff for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said the OHC needs to avoid “mission drift” by spreading its attention over too many areas.

“It doesn’t serve the public’s interest to try to be everything to everybody,” Schroeder said.

Lester Bensch, an OHC member who runs the Viking Valley Hunt Club in Ashby, said hunters and anglers pushed for the dedicated sales tax amendment because of a perception that the LCCMR had strayed from protecting habitat.

“The sportspeople didn’t think that adequate funding was going into the environment,” Bensch said.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, a member of the LCCMR and OHC, disagreed that OHC can’t also recommend research and other projects that are different than land acquisition.

“This is all subjective … Nowhere does it say you can do research, you can’t do research,” said Anderson, who is chair of the Senate Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget Division.

Elizabeth Wilkens, a retired educator from Mora and member of the LCCMR, said OHC’s mission of enhancing and protecting habitat can encompass things like environmental education if they take a long-term view.

“It’s not a long stretch to go from those terms and say it includes environmental education,” Wilkens said.

John Herman, a LCCMR member and lobbyist and attorney for Faegre & Benson in Minneapolis, said there could be some areas where research needs to be conducted to determine proper lands for acquisition.

He suggested the two panels need to try and figure out ways to communicate better about their directions. “The question is how can we work together to leverage our dollars,” Herman said.

The LCCMR received more than 280 requests for projects for the 2010 round of funding, which is twice the amount it received last year. Later this month, the LCCMR will meet to winnow the number of projects to recommend to the Legislature down to about 60.

The OHC will choose it projects later this year and early next year. OHC is also putting together a 25-year plan later this year, said Mike Kilgore, a University of Minnesota forestry professor and chair of the OHC.

Members of the panel decided to work on ways to communicate after the OHC’s 2010 project list is developed.

“I think it would evolve over a period of time if we could cooperate more,” Herman said.

Doling out the dough

The $$ available in the 2010 fiscal year that started July 1 for the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) and the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (OHC):

The LCCMR: $25.6 million (from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which is supported by Minnesota Lottery proceeds).

The OHC: $78.5 million (from a 33 percent share of the money generated by the new constitutional sales tax increase).

Source: The websites of the LCCMR and the OHC.

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