Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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MN: Report fuels land funding debate

St. Paul – Public land has been a hot topic in recent years, and
the conversation often has centered around management of land the
DNR already owns, and acquisition of more.

It’s a topic that promises to be part of the current legislative
session. And a new report from the agency likely will be a major
part of the debate.

Mandated by the Legislature last year, the report identifies the
amount of money the agency has to manage its lands, and the amount
it needs to manage its lands.

There’s an $18.9 million annual gap, according to the
report.

“We’ve managed our lands to a basic conservation condition,”
said Dave Schad, DNR deputy commissioner. “In many cases, it’s much
better than that. We can do more and should do more in terms of
managing lands we already own, but I don’t think the numbers tell
the whole story here.”

If the state continues acquiring land at current rates and
manages all lands to guidelines, the funding gap grows to $32
million per year. And if it acquires land at rates that meet goals
set forth in various long-range plans, the gap is $84 million per
year.

The gap doesn’t mean the agency isn’t actively managing its
lands, said Bob Meier, DNR assistant commissioner.

“We aren’t managing our lands as badly as some people like to
say we are,” he said. “The system is in good shape. Can we make it
better? Yeah.”

The agency manages about 5.5 million acres, or 11 percent of the
land in Minnesota. About 2.5 million acres, or 45 percent, are
Permanent School Trust fund lands that the federal government
transferred to the state in the 19th century.

Another 1.55 million acres, or 28 percent, are consolidated
conservation lands the state acquired to help seven northern
counties prevent bankruptcy.

About one-quarter of the land the DNR manages is land it
acquired through means like gifts and purchases. That land base is
made up of parcels such as wildlife management areas.

In terms of WMAs, for example, the report shows a $5.9 million
annual funding gap. But that gap doesn’t take into account Outdoor
Heritage Fund money that nonprofit groups like Ducks Unlimited and
Pheasants Forever use to do management work on the lands, Meier
said.

“That gap, realistically, is $2 million or $2.5 million,” he
said.

The funds necessary to manage its lands outlined in the report
are based on models that use inputs from system-wide guidelines for
management activities. So while burning a grassland every three or
five years might be ideal and called for under the guidelines, for
example, some parcels may not be any the worse for the wear if
they’re burned every six or seven years.

“We want our lands to be managed at a high level,” Schad said.
“These are really precious conservation lands and we want to try to
manage them to the highest conservation standard. But there’s a lot
of flexibility there in where we prioritize and it’s OK if we don’t
meet those standards exactly. We’re still going to provide high
quality habitat, high quality recreational opportunities out
there.”

The DNR Fish and Wildlife Division has begun a project whereby
local managers will go through WMAs and aquatic management areas to
determine what the management needs are.

The idea is to “develop a system that will allow us to predict,
plan, and budget for those needs in the future,” Schad said. That
won’t be based on models, “but on needs identified by field
managers.”

During the past five or six years, the agency has been building
upfront management costs into the costs to acquire land. Management
costs tend to be highest in the first 10 years after acquisition,
Meier said.

“That drives down future management costs,” he said.

First step

The report is a “good first step” in helping agency officials
understand how it can acquire and manage land at the same time,
Meier said.

Minnesota Management and Budget soon will issue a report that
follows up on the DNR’s report and outlines methods to meet the
needs the agency identified.

“The opportunity behind this document is to say ‘Here is what
the funding portfolio should be for these types of activities,'”
Meier said. “We need a mix of all the funds available.”

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