Setting proper policy is the task before the Heritage Council

For the 12 Minnesotans serving on the Lessard Outdoor Heritage
Council, it’s going to be a short winter. By April 1, they must
make recommendations to the Legislature for the initial habitat
expenditures from the new outdoor heritage fund. But this is not
their only task.

Before the LOHC can make its recommendations, it must first
solicit funding requests, review them, and decide which ones meet
the funding criteria. While the language of the constitutional
amendment offers clear guidance for spending the money on
protecting, improving, or restoring habitat, you could say the
policy map for the funding process is being drawn while traveling
down the road. The LOHC has no other choice than to keep moving
forward in order to meet the April 1 deadline.

In addition, the LOHC must get its house in order, including
setting ground rules for the Council and how it interacts with
funding applicants and the public. LOHC members need to hire an
executive director, set up an office, and build a website. Then
there is statewide outreach, likely including members attending
various conservation meetings statewide and perhaps holding a few
of their own.

The LOHC has much to do and little time to do it. Nevertheless,
after a conversation with interim chair Mike Kilgore, I think
they’ll make their legislative deadline and do as good a job as
time allows. After two initial meetings, Kilgore believes council
members have rolled up their sleeves and gone to work.

I’ve known Kilgore professionally and personally for a number of
years and think he was a good choice for the chair. Now a professor
at the University of Minnesota, he formerly worked as executive
director of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, where he was
involved during the formative years of developing new policies and
guidelines for timber harvest in the state. It is fair to say he
understands process as well as anyone. He is realistic about what
lies ahead for the LOHC.

“We know we don’t have a lot of time,” he says. “Our first order
of business is to develop a framework of how to proceed to April
1.”

The council hasn’t yet discussed how it will reach out
statewide. Grassroots participation is necessary, because a portion
of the funding is specifically directed to local projects. He said
the Board of Water and Soil Resources may hold listening sessions
around the state and The Nature Conservancy is coordinating a
meeting prior to the DNR Roundtable in January so invitees can
voice their spending priorities. In either case, council members
may attend the meetings or the council may accept input from them,
but Kilgore says the LOHC will not participate in such
meetings.

“The Council needs to represent the public,” he says. “It will
be difficult for the LOHC to formally participate in the meetings
of other organizations.”

In an ideal world, Kilgore says, the LOHC would hold listening
sessions around the state to solicit public input and explain what
heritage funding is and how it works. The April 1 deadline limits
the time available for state outreach. He suggested a website could
provide information and collect public input. Local buy-in for a
project will be an important aspect of proposals, because
conservation doesn’t work without it.

“We have over a dozen counties that have ‘no net gain of public
land’ policies,” he says. “We can’t recommend funding for projects
that will be opposed by local government.”

While the LOHC is charged with recommending expenditures
projected to be $70-$80 million annually, presently it is broke.
The first sales tax revenues will not be available until August 1.
So far, funding is coming through the DNR. Once heritage monies are
in place, the LOHC is authorized to spend up to one percent of
annual funds on administration.

Kilgore says staffing will begin with an executive director and
administrative assistant, but he thinks the council should develop
a staffing plan. Later, as the LOHC becomes more involved in
conservation efforts, additional staff may be needed to track
ongoing projects and report to the council. Communications and
information distribution will be important for the LOHC to maintain
transparency with the public.

“We’re not in the business of building bureaucracies,” he says,
“but we need the ability to report to the public.”

“Transparency” was a word Kilgore used more than once during our
conversation. He and other LOHC members are keenly aware they are
under intense scrutiny from the Legislature, the media, and the
interested public. They understand that heritage funding must be
spent fairly and for the best long-term habitat benefits.

While it is too early to speculate about what projects will be
funded, the LOHC will be under some pressure to spread the money
around the state. This may prove politically and logistically
challenging, given the lack of statewide representation on the
council and the short timeline for soliciting project proposals.
Kilgore says the LOHC has only touched upon how it will establish
regional habitat priorities, perhaps using the state’s ecoregions
as a guide.

The LOHC has its work cut out for it, until the April 1 deadline
and beyond. While most of the attention in coming months will be
focused on who gets heritage funding and how much, the LOHC’s
greatest accomplishment will be establishing policies to best serve
habitat conservation for the next 25 years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *