The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council last week wrapped up a hard-fought round of hearings on Legacy funding by making $102 million in recommendations for the 2014 Legislature.
Three items in particular hung on to receive funding despite staunch opposition from some of the 12 members on the citizen/legislator panel. They are funding for habitat projects in metro-area parks, a proposal to acquire land from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and funding for aquatic invasive species (AIS).
The money will be paid out of the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which is one of four Legacy funds that receive the proceeds from the three-eighths of 1 percent increase in the state sales tax that voters approved in 2008. The Lessard-Sams allocations were whittled down from more than $269 million worth of projects that a variety of government bodies and non-profit groups submitted earlier this year.
The Lessard-Sams’ allocations will be presented in bill form to lawmakers, who will get the final say on the appropriations. Although the recommendations are advisory, events in this year’s legislative session established the Lessard-Sams council as the main deciding agent as it pertains to the Outdoor Heritage Fund.
The Lessard-Sams council in 2012 didn’t advance AIS, Fond du Lac or metro parks funding. The House crafted legislation last winter that included funding for metro parks and AIS. At the end of the conference committee in May, Gov. Mark Dayton and House and Senate leaders agreed to include the non-Lessard-Sams projects in the final bill. But sportsmen and conservation groups applied significant pressure on Dayton while the bill was on his desk and assailed the additional projects as violations of the process voters had in mind when they passed the Legacy in 2008. Dayton reversed himself and line-item vetoed $6.3 million for metro parks and $3 million for AIS projects. In his veto letter, Dayton said his decision “did not reflect a lack of support for the two projects” and asked Lessard-Sams to consider the them in the next round of funding.
Although the three controversial projects didn’t get everything they asked for in the current set of recommendations, the list of allocations, which last Friday passed the Lessard-Sams council unanimously, is a victory, said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, who serves on the council.
“To walk out of there with some AIS, some metro and the Fond du Lac fully funded, I think, is a big deal,” Hansen said.
There were more than $30 million in requests for AIS funding. The Lessard-Sams members clashed over the proposals during September hearings. Some members were critical of proposals to address zebra mussels, contending that some boaters won’t comply with the decontamination stations that the Legacy money would pay for. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said publicly that zebra mussels projects conflicted with the original intent of the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which, Landwehr claimed, should focus on acquiring land or buying conservation easements.
The outcome is that the Coalition of Lake Associations (COLA) will receive $3.65 million to help local governments establish decontamination stations that will be used to clean off boats before they enter the water. COLA had requested $25 million, but members, including Hansen, suggested a less expensive pilot project as a compromise.
Two other AIS proposals fell through the cracks. The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District’s $2.7 million proposal to control zebra mussels in the western Twin Cities area didn’t receive any funding. In regard to Asian carp, a $6.5 million proposal from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources failed to win any funding.
Some Lessard-Sams members objected to the projects for metro-area parks, contending that another source of Legacy money, the Parks and Trails Fund, should be tapped instead. Parks advocates in the metro area argued that their proposals were designed to improve habitat for fish and wildlife rather than park infrastructure.
Among the metro recommendations, the Conservation Partners Legacy Metro Grant program got $3.64 million; Great River Greening received $1.19 million for habitat restoration and enhancement in the Anoka Sand Plain; the Minneapolis Park Board received $600,000 for habitat projects at Theodore Wirth Regional Park; Three Rivers Park District received $370,000 for Crow-Hassan Prairie Complex Restoration; and Anoka County received $380,000 for prairie and oak savanna restoration along the Mississippi and Rum rivers.
There were some metro parks projects that didn’t get funding, such as proposals for fish habitat improvements for Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis and Lake Independence in western Hennepin County.
The council recommended $2.8 million for the Fond du Lac project, which will be used to buy land to improve forest and stream habitat along the St. Louis River in northeastern Minnesota.
The Fond du Lac projects had raised concerns about the potential for hunting and fishing access to conflict with treaty rights.