Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Pawlenty veto costs state $60 million for easements

St. Paul – Late last week, state Natural Resources Conservation
Service officials told national NRCS officials that Minnesota would
be able to take $35 million in funds for the Wetlands Reserve
Program.

Those funds hinged on the availability of state Reinvest in
Minnesota Reserve dollars, of which there were $25 million in a
bonding bill the Legislature approved and sent to Gov. Tim
Pawlenty.

On Sunday, Pawlenty line-item vetoed the bill from $1 billion to
$680 million and, in the process, eliminated all of the
RIM_dollars.

As a result, the Minnesota NRCS office has to tell Washington
NRCS officials thanks, but no thanks.

In all, the veto cost the state about $60 million this year for
the RIM/WRP program, a state and federal partnership that pays
landowners for permanent conservation easements that require them
to restore and maintain wetlands and uplands.

“RIM/WRP has proven itself to be a pretty successful program for
wildlife, and it’s been attractive to landowners,” said Ryan
Heiniger, director of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited in
Minnesota and Iowa. “We’re thinking about some of the lost
opportunities on private land; some of the wetlands that will go
unrestored this summer.”

Officials say that $60 million would have restored as many as
20,000 acres of wetlands and associated uplands. NRCS officials
also say the $60 million would have maintained or created 560
jobs.

The veto, though, doesn’t spell the end for the program, as the
Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council recommended $6.9 million for
the program this year. The Legislature still must approve the
council’s bill.

Those dollars would leverage nearly $10 million in federal WRP
funds. The total – about $17 million – would be enough to secure
between 4,000 and 5,000 acres of RIM/WRP easements.

“That’s still very significant,” said Kevin Lines, conservation
easement section administrator for the Board of Water and Soil
Resources. “It’s certainly not to the same extent of having an
additional $60 million.”

BWSR asked for $50 million in bonding funds for RIM, but
Pawlenty’s original proposal was to fund RIM in the bonding bill to
the tune of $4 million.

The bonding bill the House passed included $30 million for RIM,
while the Senate bill had $10 million. The final bonding bill the
Legislature approved included $25 million.

“While there is value to RIM projects, the overall bill had to
be kept affordable,” Pawlenty’s spokesman Brian McClung said in an
email. “The governor included $4 million for RIM in his proposal,
but the DFL passed a bill with more than six times that amount at
$25 million. Unfortunately the way the bill was written made it
necessary to line-item veto the entire appropriation, rather than
allowing some of the projects to move forward.”

Sen. Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, was disappointed in
Pawlenty’s veto. He had tried to increase the level of RIM funding
in the Senate bill from $10 million to $35 million.

“There are multiple benefits to (RIM/WRP easements) – they stop
erosion, they improve water quality, and they provide habitat for
wildlife,” he said. “Some of these lands are low productivity
lands, and the (easements) give farmers an attractive alternative
to trying to grow crops and make a profit.”

BWSR and NRCS officials say they didn’t expect any trouble in
generating enough landowner interest to put $60 million worth of
easements on the ground.

A RIM/WRP sign-up period is expected to begin in the next few
weeks, though fulfillment of any applications depends on the
Legislature appropriating the money recommended by the Lessard-Sams
council.

WRP funds are appropriated on an annual basis, and the $35
million likely will be distributed to states that can use it.

“This money we were going to get, a lot of that money was coming
from states that can’t use it,” said Tim Koehler, assistant state
conservationist for NRCS. “Now all of the sudden we’ve become a
state that can’t use it.”

While Pawlenty’s veto letter seemed to leave the door open for a
second bonding bill, lawmakers earlier this week said the prospect
was unlikely.

Other vetoes

In trimming the bonding bill, Pawlenty also cut other natural
resources items. Among them:

€ $750,000 to renovate the Coon Rapids Dam.

€ $1 million to the city of Two Harbors for campground
expansion.

€ $4.5 million to acquire scientific and natural areas.

€ $21.4 million to acquire and develop state trails.

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