Group Corridors’ project still has funds to spend

Governor’s plan could affect Phase II’

By Tim Spielman

Associate Editor

Plymouth, Minn. A consortium of conservation groups and state
and federal wildlife agencies is slated to receive about $7 million
to continue habitat efforts across the state during the next two
years.

However, that’s about $5 million less than allocated for the
first portion of the “Restoring Minnesota’s Fish and Wildlife
Habitat Corridors” project from the state’s Legislative Commission
on Minnesota Resources. Having a high proportion of unspent funds
remaining from the first round may have caused the commission to
limit funding for Phase II, according to Harvey Nelson of the
Minnesota Waterfowl Association, the lead group for the
project.

“We would’ve liked to have seen a much greater portion spent by
the end of last June,” he said.

However, timing and organization of the ground-breaking effort
may have slowed the initial phase, Nelson said.

On June 24, 2001, the LCMR a 20-member non-partisan commission
comprised of 10 state senators and 10 state representatives
approved nearly $12 million for the “corridors” project submitted
on behalf of 14 groups and agencies, including the Minnesota DNR
and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Emphasis for the first phase is
on restoration, easement, and acquisition of fish and wildlife
habitat in Minnesota.

The majority of LCMR funding comes from the Environment and
Natural Resources Trust Fund, derived from state lottery proceeds.
LCMR funding is provided in two-year cycles.

Once the funding was approved in the summer of 2001, Nelson
said, the partners set about finalizing plans, which were completed
that fall. Work was done and some money was spent by the spring of
2002, but proposals for the next biennium 2004-05 were already
being accepted.

When partners submitted their reports during November and
December of last year, about $4.2 million, or 36 percent of the
$11.75 in funding, had been spent.

“A lot has happened since then,” Nelson said this week. “There
has been engineering work done and land acquisition, and that will
continue until spring breaks.”

That the money was not spent earlier in the two-year cycle was
not unusual, he added.

“It was the first time this type of program was put together,”
Nelson said. “Most projects are submitted by individuals
(organizations). This was to pool the efforts and resources to
concentrate on project areas.”

John Velin, director of the LCMR, said the amount of money
unspent by the “corridors” project may have influenced commission
members, who recommended the partners receive about $7 million
during the next funding cycle.

Furthermore, competition for the LCMR funds is always great.

Nelson said most partners believed the emphasis for the
corridors project should be limited to out-state Minnesota. As
such, 11 project areas were designated, none in the metro area.
This year, supporters of a corridors project for the metro took
their own proposal to the LCMR and won approval for $8 million in
funding. According to the LCMR web site, the “Metropolitan Area
Wildlife Corridors: including Trott Brook Greenway and Hardwood
Creek” is affiliated with the DNR and the Trust for Public
Land.

Phase I

According to the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, the purpose of
the original out-state corridors project was to bring together the
expertise of the state’s wildlife groups and agencies and avoid a
“shotgun” approach to conservation work. The partners are planning
10, two-year phases.

The corridors are both linear following rivers and features of
the terrain and spatial regarding groups of lakes or, for example,
the areas where deer spend winters and summers, Nelson said.

Acquisition has been via purchases and easements. Restoration
has been another objective.

“The whole concept is to fill in the gaps and restore all the
habitat that we can,” Nelson said.

According to partners’ information, Phase I of the project “will
provide the capability to carry out restoration and management on
78,820 acres of fish and wildlife habitat.” The 11 project areas
included the Mississippi Blufflands, the Southern Lakes, the Des
Moines River Valley, the Big Woods (north), the Alexandria Moraine,
the Upper Minnesota River, the Lower St. Louis River, the Central
Lakes, the Border Prairie, Mississippi Headwaters, and the Aspen
Parklands.

By the end of last year, several accomplishments toward the
corridor goals had been reported, including these:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had begun restoration work on
41 wetland sites (1,196 acres) and had completed work on 21 wetland
sites (309 acres);

The National Wild Turkey Federation, under the Set Out Seedlings
program, planted 46,000 trees and shrubs on 775 acres of private
land;

Pheasants Forever had acquired 954 acres of wetland and upland
habitat;

The DNR Shallow Lakes Management Program hired three shallow
lakes specialists, conducted four public meetings, and initiated
feasibility studies of 30 of 90 lakes scheduled for
improvement;

The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association restored 75 acres of
winter deer habitat and acquired 447 acres with matching funds;

The Minnesota Waterfowl Association and USFWS provided technical
and financial assistance to landowners enrolled in the federal
Conservation Reserve Program that resulted in restoration of 2,242
wetland acres.

Is Phase II funding secure?

Depending on who you ask, the partners for the corridors project
are nearly guaranteed to receive the $7 million approved by the
LCMR this summer.

Or, they’re not.

In his recent budget proposal that addressed a $4.2 billion
budget shortfall, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty recommended removing
about $13 million from the LCMR equation and directing it to the
state’s General Fund, according to LCMR director John Velin.

While the state lottery provides about $30 million of the $48
million available, the Future Resources Fund, the vast majority of
which comes from a tax on cigarettes, contributes the in-question
$13 million. That’s been the case since the early 1960s, Velin
said.

Of course, it’s up to the state Legislature to accept what the
governor has proposed, or come up with its own plan.

But if the approved budget does divert FRF monies to the General
Fund, LCMR members may have to look at the 30-plus approved
projects once again.

“If (the Legislature) agrees to divert the money, then the LCMR
must figure out what the package will look like without the
cigarette tax dollars,” Velin said.

In 1982, Velin said the state, in dealing with a “monster
deficit” had to cut LCMR funding.

Theoretically, Velin said, the state could tap into the
Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ETF), but that would
be politically unwise.

In the LCMR’s final recommendations for 2004-05 projects, the
funding is listed as coming from one of five sources, with the
lottery proceeds and cigarette tax contributing about $45 million
of the $48 million total.

The corridor project’s source is listed as the ETF, but Velin
said should the the cigarette tax disappear from LCMR coffers, all
projects will be considered for cuts.

“No project is safer than anything else,” he said.

The Minnesota Waterfowl Association’s Nelson believes corridor
funding is “reasonably safe.”

He says the ETF is more “specific” regarding eligible projects
and is earmarked for projects similar to the habitat corridors
plan.

“I’m optimistic that because of the significance of the
corridors project we’ll maintain that ($7 million) funding,” he
said.

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