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Conservation easements go under the microscope in Minnesota

Posted on April 5, 2012

St. Paul — The state legislative auditor plans an examination of two topics that have been prominent in recent legislative sessions: school trust lands and conservation easements.

The state Legislative Audit Commission selected those topics and five others at its meeting last week.

Conservation easements long have been used to protect land while at the same time keeping it in private ownership. Since the passage of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in 2008, though, there’s been an increased emphasis on them.

According to a topic selection background paper, the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which takes in one-third of the money the amendment raises each year, since 2009 has funded $145 million worth of conservation easement projects.

Another primary funding source for easements is the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which since 1999 has funded $26.5 million worth of easements.

According to the background paper, $31.7 million of the Outdoor Heritage Fund easements, and $7.9 million of the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund easements, involved nonprofit organizations.

Among the topics that may be included in the audit are:

  • How is land selected for easements? How is value determined?
  • How well do state agencies and nonprofit groups monitor the requirements of easements?

Some have raised concerns about the public oversight of conservation easements that non-profit groups administer, according to the background paper.

“There is no overall state plan for nonprofits’ easements or how they fit with state agencies’ conservation easements,” the paper says. “A 2010 (Office of the Legislative Auditor) evaluation, Natural Resource Land, recommended improving DNR’s management practices for easements. OLA has not previously evaluated easements administered by nonprofit organizations.

“An evaluation of publicly funded conservation easements could compare those administered by nonprofit organizations with those by state agencies. The amount of state oversight for easements is up to legislative discretion. An evaluation by OLA is feasible and, given expectations that conservation easements will continue to increase, also timely.”

School trust land

Lawmakers this sessions are considering several pieces of legislation related to school trust lands, which the DNR manages. The land includes about 2.5 million acres – and another million acres of mineral rights.

In 2011, school trust lands generated about $23 million in investment revenue for public school districts in the state, according to a background paper on the topic.

Among the topics an audit may consider are:

  • Has DNR managed school trust lands, which primarily are in the northern Minnesota, to provide the greatest economic return?
  • Would a different decision-making structure for trust lands provide increased revenue or clearer oversight?