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

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Agencies, groups unveil $3.6 billion Minnesota prairie plan

St. Paul — State and federal resource agencies, and a number of conservation groups, have signed onto an aggressive, $3.6 billion plan to protect and enhance Minnesota’s prairies.

The agencies and groups last week signed a memorandum of understanding to work together under the 25-year Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan, which is a blueprint for acquiring and protecting more than 2.2 million acres of prairies, wetlands, and grasslands on the western edge of the state.

“We have lost 99 percent of our original grasslands, and could lose most of the CRP in the next few years,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said in a prepared statement. “It is imperative – for wildlife, fish, water quality, and the human quality of life – to restore remnants of this native heritage. This plan lays out a scientific, collaborative, and workable solution.”

The plan identifies core areas where there is a concentration of native prairie, grasslands, wetlands, and shallow lakes. It also designs a set of corridors that includes wetland and grassland complexes and connect the core areas.

The plan proposes to do the following:

  • Use fee-title and easement acquisition to permanently protect 222,100 acres in core areas; 82,000 acres in corridors; and 547,300 acres elsewhere.
  • Conduct restoration on 180,900 acres in core areas; 84,100 acres in corridors; and 251,000 acres elsewhere.
  • Use management activities such as fire and conservation grazing to annually enhance 100,560 acres in core areas; 42,050 acres in corridors; and 334,397 acres elsewhere. Enhancement of 335,047 acres of existing wetlands and shallow lakes also is included.

“In my mind, one of the chief values is it will focus efforts on these prairie core areas,” said Steve Chaplin, the director of prairie conservation for The Nature Conservancy and chief author of the plan.

“Prairie is absolutely essential for maintaining the native plants and wildlife that’s part of Minnesota’s natural heritage,” Chaplin said. “This is a plan that will address the threats that are driving the loss of native prairie and associated grasslands.”

According to the plan, the state once had about 18 million acres of tallgrass prairie.

“The soil developed by prairie plants over thousands of years is now the basis of Minnesota’s rich agricultural economy and which over the last 150 years has been largely converted to row crop agriculture,” the plan says. “The result is that most of the prairie and associated habitats are now gone, along with the bison, elk, and other key species that were integral to the functional prairie system.”

The state now has about 1 percent of its original native prairie – 235,076 acres – and half of it has no legal protection.

“We can see the trend line of where this is going,” Landwehr said. “We are not going to get ahead of it but we have to get as much protected as we can.”

Those who signed the MOU include the DNR; Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources; Natural Resources Conservation Service; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Audubon Minnesota; Ducks Unlimited; Pheasants Forever; Minnesota

Prairie Chicken Society; The Nature Conservancy; and the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society.

“The plan would be useful under any set of circumstances, but when we have something like the Outdoor Heritage Fund, we need to make sure we can make the most of that money,” said John Jaschke, executive director of BWSR. “That’s why we felt it was imperative to get this done, and get it done now.”

The Outdoor Heritage Fund receives money from the Legacy Amendment, which voters approved in 2008.

The amount of Legacy funds – primarily from the Outdoor Heritage Fund and the Clean Water Fund – necessary to finance the plan could be $1.1 billion over the next 25 years. The remainder would come from other state, federal, and private conservation sources.

“It’s a major undertaking, and it’s an expensive undertaking,” Chaplin said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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