$10 million in bonding bill to buy new WMAs

Staff Writer

St. Paul — Minnesota soon will have thousands more acres of
public land for hunting, birding, and other outdoor pursuits.

Under an agreement reached last week, the $885.9 million bonding
bill includes $10 million for the acquisition of wildlife
management areas, $23 million for the Conservation Reserve
Enhancement Program, and millions more for a variety of
conservation programs.

At this point, the bill is little more than an agreement. It
still must be voted on in the Senate and House, and signed by Gov.
Tim Pawlenty, who helped broker the bill.

Pawlenty and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar,
expressed optimism at Saturday’s Ducks, Wetlands, and Clean Water
Rally that the bill would be passed and signed soon.

When it does, the state’s 1.2 million acres of WMAs will get a
historic boost.

At about $1,500 an acre, the DNR expects to acquire between
6,000 and 7,000 acres of land, said Kim Hennings, DNR land
acquisition program leader. Just a few years ago, the agency was
spending about $500 an acre.

“(Land prices) have been going kind of nuts for the last year or
two,” Hennings said.

The $10 million is in addition to money — about $3.4 million a
year — the DNR already spends on WMA acquisition, but it’s the
largest infusion to date.

Previously, the most funding for WMAs was in 1979 and 1981, when
$4 million and $4.5 million, respectively, was available. The last
bonding bill, in 2002, allocated $400,000 for WMAs.

Hennings doesn’t anticipate any trouble spending the money.

“The opportunity’s there, that’s never been a problem,” he said.
“We’ve always had more willing sellers than we’ve ever had
money.”

There could be a bottleneck as the agency processes everything,
like appraisals, review, and certification. It takes the same
amount of time to process large and small tracts of land, so the
DNR may focus on the larger ones, Hennings said.

The agency has a list of parcels that already have been approved
for acquisition. Each year, area managers compile a list of
high-priority land that’s available, which then is reviewed at the
regional and state levels.

Acquisition likely will focus on areas where land can be
acquired that will connect to property enrolled in programs like
CREP, as well as areas where grassland and wetland complexes can be
created, Henning said.

“We’re going to be focusing on that Prairie Pothole transition
part of the state,” Hennings said.

CREP

The $23 million for a second round of CREP is the first
installment of what eventually will set aside 120,000 acres.
Another $27.7 million will be needed in next year’s bonding bill to
complete the program, said Kevin Lines, conservation easement
section manager for the Board of Water and Soil Resources.

The $50.7 million from the state will be matched by about $200
million in federal funding.

But the bonding bill needs to be signed before the U.S.
Department of Agriculture will approve the state’s application.

“We’ve been talking CREP for some time now, and landowners are
probably saying, ‘We’ll believe it when we see it’,” Lines said.
“Every day that goes by just makes the job of accomplishing that
120,000-acre goal that much tougher.”

About 30,000 of the acres of wetland would be in permanent
easements; the remaining 90,000 acres could be in 45-year
easements. The three watersheds the program will be available in
are the Red River in northwestern Minnesota (51,000 acres), the
Lower Mississippi in southeast Minnesota (51,000 acres), and the
Missouri River and Des Moines River in southwest Minnesota (18,000
acres).

If the bill is finalized in the near future, and a memorandum of
understanding between the state and USDA is signed shortly
thereafter, Lines said enrollment could begin June 1.

The first CREP training session was held last week. The DNR, for
its part, is beginning to move staff into place to sign landowners
onto the program.

Its specialists in soil and water conservation district offices
where CREP is available will work on it, as will some of its
private lands specialists, said Bill Penning, DNR farmland wildlife
program leader.

“We’re certainly gearing up as fast as we can,” he said. “We
would liked to have started a year ago.”

Here’s a partial list of where other money from the bonding bill
will be directed:

  • $600,000 for development of WMAs.
  • $27 million for flood hazard mitigation grants.
  • $2 million in critical habitat matching money.
  • $2 million for water access and fishing piers.
  • $2 million for reforestation.
  • $4 million for forest and state park acquisition.
  • $1 million for native prairie bank easements.
  • $500,000 for metro greenways.
  • $300,000 for scientific and natural areas.

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