Minnesota rep to author Wetlands Loan Act bill

By Joe Albert

Staff Writer

Maple Grove, Minn. — Hoping to curb the trend of wetland and
grassland losses nationwide, conservation group leaders met Tuesday
with U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minnesota, in an effort to double
the amount of money spent each year on habitat.

Kennedy said he would author a bill in Congress to revive a
program, the Wetlands Loan Act, to advance between $40 and $50
million per year for 10 years from sales of the federal duck stamp.
Last week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his Democratic counterpart in
Louisiana sent a letter to other governors urging support for the
act, which had been in place from 1961 until 1988.

“We’ve got a broad coalition of not just duck (interests),”
Kennedy said. “It would benefit pheasants, ruffed grouse,
turkeys…”

Between $42 and $50 million is raised each year by the sale of
duck stamps. That money then is spent to purchase and improve
waterfowl habitat.

Under the Wetlands Loan Act, the amount spent each year on
restoration and acquisition would double. The USFWS would gain
easements and take fee title on certain parcels of drained wetlands
or converted grassland, said Jim Leach, USFWS refuge supervisor in
Minnesota.

The state DNR and Pheasants Forever began discussions with the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the idea about six months ago,
Leach said.

“The idea of farming the best and buffering the rest would be an
adequate slogan,” Leach said.

The meeting included Leach, Kennedy, and Larry Nelson, assistant
director of the DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division. The three met
with representatives from groups like the Minnesota Conservation
Federation, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, The Nature
Conservancy, the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, Ruffed Grouse
Society, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, among
others.

“This seems like a really simple idea,” Kennedy said.

But the group discussed a few considerations, Kennedy said,
namely: ensuring the plan is acceptable to agricultural interests;
letting counties know about the economic benefits of opportunities
for more and better hunting; and allaying concerns expressed by
those in the West about more federal land.

Extra money wouldn’t be hard to spend, Leach said.

“If we doubled our acquisition program in this region, we could
meet our demand,” he said. “Right now, with existing funds, we
can’t meet that backlog.”

The Dakotas also have a long list of landowners willing to sell
their land, or easements to it.

Money would be targeted to lower quality farmland, and probably
be more focused than, for example, the Conservation Reserve
Enhancement Program, Kennedy said. “We’re looking at a lot of
little pieces,” he said.

Though additional money would be spent across the nation, the
prairie breeding grounds would be a prime candidate for an
infusion, Kennedy said.

“The good news is the Southern states really understand they
need production in the Prairie Pothole Region,” he said.

Dwight Landreneau, secretary of the Louisiana Department of
Wildlife and Fisheries, echoed that during a call last week with
reporters. “The most severe area of concern is the Pothole region
for breeding and broods,” he said. “We can see that (having a)
positive effect in Louisiana.”

Kennedy said that spending money now on habitat makes sense
because “land isn’t getting cheaper.” If landowners had to wait 10
years to do something with their land, they may elect to put it in
production, he said.

He also noted that Congress forgave the loan from the last
Wetlands Loan Act. Kennedy said he is seeking a Democratic
co-sponsor for the bill, and that authors in the Senate still are
needed.

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