Some claim it’s outside the purview of outdoor heritage funding
In crafting its recommendations to the 2014 Legislature, the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council is internally divided on more than $30 million in requests to combat aquatic invasive species in Minnesota waters.
The 12-member Lessard-Sams council, which is made up of legislators and citizen members, is in the process of making recommendations to state lawmakers on how to spend roughly $100 million from the Outdoor Heritage Fund in 2014. The outdoor heritage money comes from one of four funds that receive dollars from the three-eighths of 1 percent increase in the state sales tax that Minnesota voters approved in 2008 to be dedicated to outdoors and cultural projects.
Out of roughly $270 million in project requests from the Outdoor Heritage Fund for the 2014 round of funding, a number of approaches to combating aquatic invasive species (AIS) have been the subject of intense debate among the Lessard-Sams members.
In particular, the spread of zebra mussels has prompted a number of requests for funding, including a
$25 million request from the Minnesota Coalition of Lake Associations (COLA) to pursue a statewide approach to stop the spread of AIS. (In addition to the proposal from COLA, Lessard-Sams also heard a $6.5 million project from the DNR to protect aquatic habitat from Asian carp and a $2 million proposal from the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District to help fund an AIS management program.)
Zebra mussels have been in the news recently after their discovery in Minneapolis’ Lake Hiawatha. They filter-feed massive amounts of plankton, which can affect the food supply for fish.
It’s illegal to transfer AIS such as zebra mussels out of contaminated lakes and punishable by a fine. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) receives $8 million a year from the state’s general fund to do inspections and selective decontamination. COLA, which has been critical of the DNR’s approach, is calling on Lessard-Sams to nudge the issue along with funding requests that would allow local governments to buy decontamination units and buy land on which to locate the units.
Argument over constitutional language
The zebra mussel proposals are the most recent chapter in the ongoing debate about the exact purpose of the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Many legislators and citizen groups like COLA contend that using the Legacy funding to put the brakes on zebra mussel expansion is in keeping with the aim of protecting fish habitat. Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, who is a member of Lessard-Sams, said protecting aquatic habitat from invasive species is as much a part of the Legacy’s purpose as restoring prairies or forests.
“If you look at the Constitution,” Hansen said, “it says protect, restore and enhance prairies, wetlands, forests for fish, game and wildlife habitat. So I believe that ‘fish, game and wildlife habitat’ authorizes or makes eligible aquatic invasive species funding, because you will be protecting fish habitat. I see it as very clear that it’s allowed. There are others who feel differently.”
Many of the conservation advocates who spent 10 years trying to get the Legacy amendment passed are in the camp that sees the proposed zebra mussel projects as outside the intended purpose of the Legacy. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, who isn’t on the Lessard-Sams council but has testified on the issue, said the statutory framework that was enacted after the Legacy was passed contains a narrow definition of the word “protect.” It envisioned land acquisition or conservation easements that would be permanently held by the state and accessible for future generations. Funding on an annual basis to hold off AIS is not the sort of protection that was part of the deal when the Legacy was passed, Landwehr said.
“I would say that I’m in the school of the narrow definition of ‘protect,’” Landwehr said. “For myself and people who are of that mind, I don’t think the standard practices for dealing with zebra mussels in particular, which we’re talking about here, really fall under the category of ‘protect.’ And they clearly don’t fall under the category of ‘enhance and restore.’”
Landwehr drew a distinction between the kinds of projects that involve decontaminating boats of AIS and projects that build fish barriers to prevent AIS like Asian carp from entering and infesting the state.
“When you put a barrier in a river, you do in fact protect. You protect that upstream part of the river from aquatic invasive species, from Asian carp, by putting that barrier in place. I don’t see the activities related to zebra mussels as passing that same test,” Landwehr said.
No guarantee measures would work
During hearings last week, some Lessard-Sams members criticized the AIS proposals because they’re not guaranteed to stop invasive species like zebra mussels from spreading.
Scott Rall, a citizen member from Worthington, said it’s not possible to get 100 percent of the boats on the water to follow through with decontamination: “How will this investment make a difference when all of those lakes, most likely, based on that low level of compliance, are going to be infested anyway?”
Jim Cox, a citizen member from Medina, suggested the project is flawed because lots of boats throughout the state launch from private docks. “Just because you got the public accesses covered is by no means protection for these lakes. You’ve only got a very small portion of the lake protected,” Cox said.
The members of COLA, however, said the state needs to move toward decontaminating all boats before they enter the water. Joe Schneider, COLA’s vice president, said more local governments will be able to make attempts to stop the spread of zebra mussels if they have financial support to buy decontamination stations.
“It is almost impossible today to get decontaminated. And what we’re trying to do is make sure that equipment is available around the state because we find that’s the only way we’re going to stop the spread,” Schneider said.
The Lessard-Sams council’s eventual set of recommendations have a major influence over lawmakers. Last session, Gov. Mark Dayton line-item vetoed projects that weren’t part of the original Lessard-Sams recommendations. The vetoes were a blow for AIS advocates, because Dayton cut out $3 million to tribal and local governments to combat AIS.
While the $25 million COLA proposal appears to be a long shot, Hansen suggested the path forward for Lessard-Sams on AIS is to do pilot projects for local governments that put together a plan of attack.
“With $102 million that we will be recommending, there is prioritization that occurs,” Hansen said. “The question is: Is it a priority for doing AIS? If the council recommends nothing, I think it’s clear that they are out of step with public concerns for AIS.”
For the camp of conservationists like Landwehr who apply a narrow meaning to rules of the Legacy, however, a movement into zebra mussels could distract from land and easement activities.
“The Legacy funds are now looked at to be the solution to every single problem.… It’s zebra mussels this year. It will be something else next year,” Landwehr said. “It’s important that people understand the history of how this funding came about and the intentions of what the original language was intended to promote.”