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Stakeholders to gather in Brooklyn Park, Minn., for anniversary of Legacy Amendment

DULUTH, Minn. -- Duluth's David Zentner was pheasant hunting in South Dakota in 2008 when he received word that Minnesotans had overwhelmingly passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment.

DULUTH, Minn. -- Duluth’s David Zentner was pheasant hunting in South Dakota in 2008 when he received word that Minnesotans had overwhelmingly passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment.

By a margin of 56 to 39 percent, Minnesotans had voted to raise their sales tax by ⅜ of 1 percent to generate money for the outdoors, clean water and the arts. Zentner, who had helped lead the campaign to pass the amendment, was stunned that voters approved the amendment by such a lopsided margin.

Now, five years since the first grants were awarded - and with more than a billion dollars’ worth of funding authorized - stakeholders will gather in Brooklyn Park, Minn., on Thursday for a fifth anniversary Legacy Amendment celebration and forum. The event is sponsored by 21 Minnesota conservation groups.

The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, an 18-member panel of citizens and legislators, is charged with receiving proposals for Outdoor Heritage Fund projects; the Legacy Amendment also directs money to four other funds. Each year the Lessard-Sams council recommends about $100 million in projects to the Minnesota Legislature for approval. Over the past five years, the council has recommended, and the Legislature has approved, more than 170 funding requests totaling about $540 million from the Outdoor Heritage Fund.

Among other projects, Legacy Amendment money is at work now cleaning up the St. Louis River estuary, protecting a wild rice lake in the Superior National Forest, growing young trees along the Knife River and keeping nearly 190,000 acres of forest land open to the public in north-central Minnesota.

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The Legacy Amendment was approved for 25 years, through 2034.

The road to this point has sometimes been rocky, with heated debates over what kinds of projects should be approved and where money should be spent. But despite those controversies, many observers say the amendment is doing what voters intended, putting millions of dollars to work improving fish and wildlife habitat, parks and trails and the arts.

“By and large, the process is doing quite well,” said Zentner, a former national president of the Izaak Walton League of America and an avid hunter and angler.

“It (the funding process) is playing out very well and as that money was intended,” said Martha Minchak, habitat restoration project manager in Duluth for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Minchak supervises habitat restoration on the St. Louis River, some of which is being paid for with Legacy dollars. One of those projects is the current clean-up of Radio Tower Bay.

Craig Engwall, now executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association in Grand Rapids, helped negotiate a $44 million forest easement agreement with UPM Blandin soon after the Legacy Amendment was passed. At that time, Engwall was regional director for the DNR in Grand Rapids. The agreement ensures that nearly 190,000 acres of the paper company’s land across seven counties will not be subdivided and that the public will continue to have access to the land.

Debating projects

One of the more controversial points in Legacy funding has been the debate over whether money should be used to acquire private land instead of enhancing public land. While the Lessard-Sams Council has recommended projects that acquire land for conservation, especially in prairie country, the acquisition of land is a lower priority in northern Minnesota, where the percentage of public land is relatively high. Projects such as the St. Louis River restoration - without land acquisition - are appropriate, Engwall said.

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“The St. Louis estuary is a good example,” he said. “The dollars clearly meet the goals for Legacy funds, but they don’t add to public ownership.”

Duluth’s Scott Kuiti, vice-president of the Lake Superior Steelhead Association, has gone before the Lessard-Sams Council in seeking approval of two habitat projects in the Knife River watershed. The club was awarded both projects and a total of nearly $1.8 million. He said he was impressed with the council’s diligence in evaluating projects.

“They can get pretty critical of those,” Kuiti said. “They want to make sure the money is being used for outdoor habitat and conservation, not just because people like to go there.”

The club used the money it was awarded to plant trees along the West Branch of the Knife River, restoring areas that had been beaver meadows.

“We’re doing this on public land or DNR easement land,” Kuiti said. “We wouldn’t be able to do all this work without the grants we received.”

Supplement of supplant?

While most observers say the projects approved for Legacy funding are worthwhile, some point out that the intent of the Legacy amendment was to supplement, not supplant, legislative spending on natural resources and the arts. Critics say that has not always been the case, and that Legacy funding has taken the place of some legislative funding for the outdoors.

Rich Staffon, who retired as DNR area wildlife manager at Cloquet in 2012, said that a portion of small game license fees that had been designated for acquiring new wildlife management areas is no longer being allocated for that purpose by legislators.

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“That’s one issue that’s concerning,” Staffon said. “The whole idea of this amendment was to provide additional sources of money for additional work, not for the standard work that was already being done.”

Zentner expressed the same concern.

“We have evidence in five years that we’re seeing some slippage, that the Legislature is not funding the post-Legacy budgets at a level they were before the amendment passed,” Zentner said.

Zentner said he also believes that Legacy money could be better used to leverage other sources of funding from both state and national sources, such as the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, the federal duck stamp and others.

“To me, that leveraging is really, really important,” Zentner said.

He also would like to see a more holistic approach to resource management, where elements of, for instance, the state’s pheasant recovery plan and the duck recovery plan can be blended.

“These are the questions I think we have to have before us so that in 2034 we’ll have left a legacy,” Zentner said.

Project examples

Here’s a snapshot of some projects funded with money from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment:

Improving moose habitat: The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, along with collaborators, has received funding from the Outdoor Heritage Fund to improve moose habitat in northeastern Minnesota. MDHA received a $960,000 grant appropriation in 2012 and an additional $2 million appropriation in 2013 and will use the money to restore or enhance more than 8,000 acres of moose habitat in Minnesota.

Protecting a wild rice lake: Ducks Unlimited secured Outdoor Heritage Fund money to purchase a 28-acre parcel of land in St. Louis County to protect 62-acre Moose Lake near Mountain Iron. The parcel of land was on the market for development, and if developed, access to the lake by ricers, duck hunters and paddlers might have been blocked. DU purchased the land and will donate it to the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the remainder of the shoreline on the lake.

Restoring streamside habitat: The Lake Superior Steelhead Association secured Outdoor Heritage Fund money in two appropriations totaling about $1.8 million to restore habitat in the Knife River watershed. The club planted a mix of deciduous and coniferous trees along the West Branch of the Knife River to stabilize banks and provide shade for the river. The Knife River and its tributaries offer the most miles of any river on Minnesota’s North Shore for steelhead spawning and rearing.

Savanna for turkeys: The National Wild Turkey Federation has received nearly $392,000 from the Outdoor Heritage Fund to enhance oak woodlands, savannas and prairies through the management of invasive species such as buckthorn. The NWTF project is being done on two state wildlife management areas near Little Falls and Rice, Minn.

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at cooksam48@gmail.com or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.
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