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A new report from the legislative auditor will likely spur lawmakers to re-examine the money they’re giving to state agencies and nonprofits to conserve outdoor habitat.

OLA: Conservation easements need tune-up

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said the state isn’t doing enough to ensure lands are kept pristine after easement deals are struck. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Legislative auditor’s report criticizes enforcement effort, disparate standards

A new report from the legislative auditor will likely spur lawmakers to re-examine the money they’re giving to state agencies and nonprofits to conserve outdoor habitat.

Rather than buying land, the state often pays landowners what’s known as a conservation easement to keep the land out of commercial or agricultural production. The amount of money the state spends on easements has risen significantly in the last 10 years and will continue to increase due to the dedicated sales tax money for habitat in the Legacy amendment that was approved by Minnesota voters in 2008.

The auditor’s report doesn’t criticize the conservation policy objectives that are pursued through the purchase of easements. But Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said the state isn’t doing enough to ensure the lands are kept pristine after the easement deals are struck.

“Conservation easements should not be treated like a passive investment,” said Nobles on Tuesday at a House Legacy Division hearing of the evaluation. “We shouldn’t do the deal and put the documents in a drawer. There should be active management of conservation easements through monitoring and oversight to ensure that the public objectives we’re seeking are achieved.”

Over 6,000 easements held statewide

State-funded easements currently protect 600,000 acres. State lawmakers have spent more than $190 million on conservation easements in the last 10 years. The money has been paid to acquire, manage and monitor the easements. Organizations hold 6,600 easements. In an indication of the increase in the practice, more than half of those easements were created between 2001 and 2011. And more than half of them are held by the state agency Board of Water and Soil Resources (BOWSR).

In addition to BOWSR, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) holds conservation easements, some of which are decades old. The nonprofit organizations Minnesota Land Trust and Ducks Unlimited also have state-funded easements.

There are several easement programs, and they vary in terms of the restrictions they place on the landowners, which makes evaluating their effectiveness difficult. But one of the points of criticism is that state law is lax on determining whether the conservation objectives on the lands are being met, according to Judy Randall, an auditor who managed the study.

“We found there are not adequate state requirements regarding monitoring of the easements — going out and visiting the property and making sure the landowner is complying with the terms of the easement,” Randall said.

Though the easement programs vary, the report recommends that lawmakers require certain standard provisions in easement agreements. Lawmakers should also require the organizations holding those easements to monitor the property to make sure owners are managing it within the specified terms. The auditor’s report recommends that monitoring should take place every three years, and also notes that the DNR was the only entity that didn’t meet that requirement.

Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, said the issue of monitoring will be a topic for lawmakers to discuss as they consider the report’s recommendations. “When we appropriate the money for conservation easements, we expect the entities that actually go out and do the work are then following up to make sure those easements are being maintained at the level for which we appropriated the money,” Falk said. “I think that’s one of the things that has been lax.”

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, in a written response to the report, noted that many of the department’s easements are old and were created before monitoring and enforcement standards were developed. He also noted that in 2011, the department received funding for monitoring easements and continues to seek funding to establish its monitoring program for the long term.

In his response, Landwehr wrote, “There needs to be an open discussion as to whether state agencies should have dedicated funding for monitoring conservation easements held by the state.”

Funding enforcement

If lawmakers decide they want state agencies to spend more time and money keeping tabs on the easements, they will have to figure out how to fund the increased monitoring. And the most obvious source of money stands to generate stiff resistance. That option involves using some of the dedicated sales tax revenue from the Legacy amendment for the costs of monitoring. For the most part, the environmental and sportsmen’s groups that campaigned for the amendment have wanted to spend its proceeds to acquire and restore habitat for fishing and hunting. They have opposed using the money to pay for the maintenance of land acquired with Legacy funds.

The auditor’s report also raises concerns about the degree of latitude that the nonprofit groups and the DNR have in purchasing easements with state money. Rather than ranking specific parcels, the report found the groups identify areas of the state when making their requests for state land. For example, the Minnesota Land Trust received $930,000 in Legacy funds in 2012 to buy land or easements associated with the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix rivers.

According to the report, “This broad appropriations language permits MLT to use its own priorities, rather than the state’s, to guide its easement acquisitions.”

The Minnesota Land Trust and Ducks Unlimited both responded that it’s appropriate for nonprofits to have the flexibility to implement their programs independently of the state. According to a statement from officials at Ducks Unlimited, “Extensive State oversight and preapproval of our conservation easements will cause NGOs [non-governmental organizations] to essentially function as an agent of the State at the pace of State agencies and not as efficient, private entities.”

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