Questions abound as council moves ahead

St. Paul – Even after a 10-year fight to allow citizens the
right to decide whether to dedicate funds to natural resources _-
then the months-long campaign to ensure voters approved the
measure, which they did – proponents, almost to a person, agreed in
one regard: The hardest part begins now.

The state sales tax will increase on July 1, 2009 by
three-eighths of 1 percent, and the proceeds will be spent on fish
and wildlife habitat, clean water, parks and trails, and arts and
culture. That much is clear.

Also clear is the deadline – April 1 – for the Lessard Outdoor
Heritage Council, charged with recommending fish and wildlife
habitat spending to lawmakers, to makes its selections.

In the meantime, there’s plenty for the council’s 12 members to
do: Decide on a process and how to find projects to fund; hire
staff, including an executive director; and determine where the
staff’s office will be, and where the council will meet. And while
the council plans to meet every other Monday from January through
March, most members also have expressed an interest in listening to
people around the state about what they want to see the money spent
on.

“How do we effectively do that in the timeframe we’ve got?”
Darby Nelson, one of the council members, asked at the group’s last
meeting.

Les Bensch advocates splitting the state into geologic regions,
identifying committees in each region, and using those people to
bring ideas for projects to the council.

Wayne Enger believes the council should create county-level
review teams that include citizens, conservation groups, and local
governments that are charged with identifying local needs and
solutions to those needs. A regional team made up of members of the
county teams would identify the region’s top priorities, then
process the application and funding request.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, suggested the council
consider all the plans that have been done, then set goals for how
it wants the state to look in 10 years, or how many acres of
prairie should be restored, for example.

“We’ve got to have goals in mind before” we figure out where to
spend the money, she said.

Nelson suggested the council begin with listening sessions,
consider the plans that already have been written, then establish
its own strategy.

“In 25 years, this thing sunsets,” he said. “What do we want the
end result to be?”

DNR hosts meeting

Council members aren’t the only ones trying to figure out which
projects will be funded and how the funding process will work. The
DNR last week hosted a discussion about the topic.

The idea was for stakeholder groups and the agency to begin
discussing opportunities and priorities related to the new funds,
said Dave Schad, DNR Fish and Wildlife Division director.

“This was our first attempt to bring some folks together to
start talking about some things,” he said. “All of us that are in
the business of doing a lot of this work, there’s a lot of good
ideas and good programs out there, and we want to make sure we are
going to be efficient and really focus where this money is going to
have a lasting impact on the land and fish and wildlife.”

In the case of that meeting, the DNR considered itself a
“convener” to try to help groups organize, Schad said.

While representatives from a number of groups attended, left out
was the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, which has been pushing
dedicated funding since the idea’s inception. MOHA President Don
McMillan said the lack of an invitation for MOHA was an
“oversight,” and illustrates the need for coordination.

“The whole thing needs to come together and somebody needs to be
responsible for communication,” he said.

McMillan planned to meet Tuesday afternoon with DNR Commissioner
Mark Holsten to discuss such matters.

In the broader context, he and others are trying to determine
how the DNR – and other groups, too – fit into the overall
dedicated funding discussion.

“We’re all trying to figure out how they are going to be
involved,” McMillan said.

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