LSOHC’s project list totals $116 million

St. Paul — The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council approved by a 9-3 vote a $115.75 million package of recommendations that it will forward to the Legislature in January.

Included in the package is $60 million in prairie projects, a $5.5 million project for land acquisition in the northern forest by the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, and a controversial project by the White Earth Nation in northern Minnesota that was included last year but eliminated by the Legislature.

That project, to protect forest wildlife habitat in the Wild Rice River Watershed, would allow White Earth to acquire 1,994 acres of land that is currently owned by timber company Potlatch Corp.

During the last session, it was stripped out of the bill after being delivered to the Legislature when Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, objected on grounds that it took land off the tax rolls in Clearwater County.

“It’s not about property taxes because there are a lot of projects that have taken property off the tax roll,” said member David Hartwell, who voted in favor of the recommendations. “I don’t buy that as a reason we shouldn’t do it. So why are we having this discussion? I think there is a bias against doing projects that would end up in tribal ownership.”

This year, much of the criticism has centered on the different hunting and fishing rules that would be in place on the land, which would be owned by White Earth Nation.

Language changes were made to the proposal in a compromise that would allow both tribal members and non-tribal members to be afforded the same set of hunting, fishing, and trapping regulations based on White Earth Nation’s regulations, as agreed upon in a joint management plan between the Minnesota DNR and White Earth Nation.

“This land is surrounded on three sides by state land, so why not have the state regulations?” said Bob Anderson, the council’s chair and mayor of International Falls.

Anderson was joined by council members Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, and Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, in voting against the resolution.

Anderson said he didn’t know how legal such an arrangement might or might not be.

And Garry Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for Change, took that notion a bit further, saying he thought it would be troubling for the DNR commissioner to reconcile, for instance, the differences between the tribal waterfowl seasons and the state’s waterfowl seasons, which are based and bound by the federal government.

“I don’t see how you could possibly do it,” Leaf said, adding he thought the proposal might have the same fate as it did last session. “Their season commences earlier than the feds’. How are you going to match that up with federal law? I don’t see how that would be legal.”

Council member Jane Kingston said she trusted the DNR to work out the details

Regardless, Kingston said the acquisition would allow for more hunting and fishing access than is currently allowed, and that the council’s main conservation objective of protecting wildlife habitat would be met.

“We don’t have any rational reason to deny the project,” Kingston said. “It’s a very small percentage of what we are working on.”

She said the council’s biggest accomplishment this year was the $60 million that will go into prairie habitat.

“The state is calling it pheasants, but you know how many animals it does advantage,” Kingston said. “The prairie is one of the most depleted ecosystems on the planet. It is probably the most important thing we are working on right now.”

Leaf agreed.

“There’s roughly 500 (fund-raising) banquets that raise about $5 to $6 million, so this is like 12 years of banquets,” Leaf said.

Leaf believes Gov. Mark Dayton’s buffer initiative and last year’s Pheasant Summit helped put more focus on the prairie during this round of the LSOHC.

This year’s recommendations include funding for 40 projects around the state, ranging from the $13.8 million allocated for the Reinvest in Minnesota Wetlands Partnership to a $125,000 allocation for restoration evaluations.

A few of the other projects include:

• The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association’s first major foray into land acquisition in northern Minnesota, with a $5.5 million project to acquire somewhere around 3,000 acres of land in the Crow Wing River Watershed that would protect forest habitat, currently owned by Potlatch, Corp., from possible conversion to agricultural land.

“It’s a very exciting project in the habitat protection it will provide, and also highlighting the work that MDHA does and can do,” said Craig Engwall, MDHA executive director.

• A $1.8 million pilot project that would involve the Minnesota DNR’s Forestry Division purchasing lands, placing conservation easements on them, and then reselling those lands, seeking to better understand the impact that conservation easements have on land values.

“The government has been overpaying for conservation easements for a long time,” Hartwell said. “This will prove what values really are.”

• A $1 million project by the Fox Lake Conservation League, Inc., the group’s first time using LSOHC dollars, to acquire land on Fox Lake in Martin County for Wildlife Management Area acquisition.

“They have a long history of working on conservation independently,” Kingston said, excited to see smaller groups making use of the funds, made available by Minnesota voters in 2008. “This is the first time they have come to the council.”

The council will next meet on Jan. 7 at 8 a.m. at the State Office Building in St. Paul.

Mark Johnson, executive director of the LSOHC, said the amount of money projected to be available increased about $4 million from $111.5 million, allowing more money to be allocated.

“They added more money to a few of the projects,” he said.

The recommendation will be put into bill form and submitted to the Legislature by Jan. 15, Johnson said.

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