Spending priorities for 2013 put a new emphasis on grasslands
The landscape is shifting for the 12-member citizen-legislator group that recommends conservation habitat land acquisitions to the state Legislature. Up until now, the panel called the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council has made its boldest buys using dedicated Legacy funds to benefit northern Minnesota forests. But as the group makes its choices for the 2013 legislative session, members appear to be putting their emphasis on preserving grasslands and prairies in the western and central parts of the state.
Lessard-Sams member Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, noted that the council members’ rankings place prairie and grassland programs among the top five projects.
“If you were to ask me if the forests have been taken care of in the past, and now maybe it’s time to move toward the prairie, I think that’s a fair question. And that might be the reason why the numbers are that high,” said Ingebrigtsen, who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
The money for the projects comes from the Legacy constitutional amendment passed by Minnesota voters in 2008, which increased the sales tax for four purposes: clean water, parks and trails, arts and culture and habitat for fishing and hunting. The Lessard-Sams council, which is named after two former senators, was created to vet the habitat portion.
For the current round of funding that’s set to be approved by the Legislature next year, Lessard-Sams received 43 proposals totaling more than $227 million. They will have to winnow that sum down to roughly $92 million, based on the last economic forecast in February. The council will hear presentations in early September concerning 32 of the projects, which were requested by state and local government agencies and nonprofit groups like Pheasants Forever and the Trust for Public Land.
Pressures to farm prairie land
Prairies have been a casualty of the state’s agricultural and industrial development.
Neal Feeken, prairie recovery project coordinator at the Nature Conservancy in Minneapolis, said the state has only 1 percent, or about 110,000 acres, of original prairie in existence today. And a substantial amount of non-native grasslands are at risk of being plowed under due to rising crop prices and weather-affected yields. According to the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BOWSR), 823,000 acres of land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) will expire in the next five years and could revert to cropland if no alternative is found.
“Right now, commodity crop prices are extremely high,” Feeken said. “They are driving conversion of native prairie. Lands are being taken out of CRP and put back into agricultural production. So we’re losing more acres of prairie now than other habitat types. Once they’re gone, they’re really hard to get back.”
The issue’s profile is rising among government and advocacy groups. Earlier this week, a group of state officials, including state Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr, announced an ambitious 25-year endeavor to preserve prairie lands. The state is banding together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and 10 conservation groups in a $3.5 billion effort to protect 2.2 million acres of prairies, wetlands and grasslands in western Minnesota.
Legacy dollars will be part of that push.
Two such requests in particular were highly ranked by the Lessard-Sams members. The second highest ranking among all the projects is a $9.1 million request by the Nature Conservancy for a prairie recovery project. Number five on their list is a $20 million request by the state Board of Water and Soil Resources (BOWSR) for a program called Grasslands for the Future.
The BOWSR request would permanently secure 4,500 acres of the most critical expiring CRP lands through conservation easements. The management plan would allow for haying and livestock grazing on the lands. The Nature Conservancy proposal is part of a multi-phase program, for which the current request is aimed at protecting more than 12,000 acres of grasslands.
Water quality benefits
Lawmakers see the prairie work in part as a way to improve water quality. House Environment and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who is also a member of Lessard-Sams, said improving prairies in western Minnesota will help lessen the amount of silt seeping into the Minnesota River.
“I think the real focus is the opportunity to clean up the Minnesota River valley,” McNamara said. “We can get larger buffers and hold the water back in the corner of the field before it leaves to the tile system and carries sediment down the river. That’s the number one reason why we should do it. But the side benefits are going to be [to] habitat. And all of that biomass could be used for ethanol or grazing.”
Conservation land acquisitions have generated controversy among some legislators in recent years. And an uptick in prairie purchases might be the subject of debate at the Capitol. Some conservative Republicans oppose any net increase in the state’s land holdings, citing concerns over the backlog of maintenance on the land it already owns. Local governments complain that the purchases by the state diminish their property tax rolls. County officials in northern Minnesota have at times complained about moves to expand public land ownership.
But McNamara said he believes the prairie issue might be less controversial in this instance, because the state isn’t as big a landowner in western Minnesota. The fiscal impact of state-owned land is being studied by state officials, who in January will release a report on the reimbursements that local governments receive for loss of tax base (which are known as payments in lieu of taxation, or PILT).
“We really have a high concentration of property (in northern Minnesota), especially in northeastern Minnesota,” McNamara said. “We want to be conscious of that. Hopefully the PILT study will help us with direction in land purchases.”