Points North: Is State Conservation Spending On The Right Path?

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The Nature Conservancy (TNC) recently acquired 470 acres of native prairie in northwest Minnesota’s Clay County with funding from the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund. TNC officials say this is the first acquisition through the organization’s Minnesota Prairie Recovery Project, described as “an innovative effort to conserve and manage the state’s remaining prairies.”
 
You might also describe the project as a step into a new kind of land conservation.
 
Here's how the Clay County land deal works: Minnesota taxpayers put up the cash for the purchase, but TNC buys and owns the land. For its money, the public gets recreation and hunting access to the property, as well as an assurance it will be managed for conservation. A clause in the agreement allows the land to revert to state ownership if TNC doesn't meet its conservation responsibilities. Although it’s a nonprofit organization, TNC intends to pay property taxes and will generate revenue to do so by leasing the grasslands as pasture. Grazing will be incorporated into prairie management.
 
If this seems a complicated arrangement, it may be necessarily so. Land conservation in Minnesota is a political hot potato, especially now that funding through the Legacy Amendment provides a steady source of dollars for habitat acquisition. Critics say public land acquisitions remove property from local tax rolls and take acres out of agricultural production. Critics also say the state owns more land than it can effectively manage already.
 
The TNC arrangement is intended to counter these criticisms, explains assistant state director Tom Landwehr. TNC will continue paying property taxes and assume responsibility for land management. By leasing the property as pasture, the organization keeps the land in agricultural production. In order to meet the requirements of Legacy funding, it will be open for public hunting.
 
It is likely this is the first of a series of such acquisitions. TNC initially received $2 million in Legacy funding to buy land. The Clay County property cost $600,000, leaving $1.4 million still available. TNC currently is requesting an additional $4 million in state monies in the current Legacy funding cycle for its Minnesota Prairie Recovery Project.
 
The organization is also looking for money to fund another project, where lands purchased with state funds will be turned over to the federal government. Landwehr says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to acquire 77,000 acres in Minnesota via purchase or easement for the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge consists of small scattered tracts rather than contiguous acreage, which makes it very similar to the familiar federal Waterfowl Production Area program. The units purchased with Legacy funding will be open to public hunting.
 
Other national nonprofit organizations interested in farmland acquisition are also seeking state tax money, including Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and the Trust for Public Land. The difference, notes Landwehr, is these groups intend to transfer their acquisitions to public ownership. Only TNC intends to keep the land it buys with taxpayer funding.
 
The need to protect and hopefully restore prairie is clear. Current estimates suggest about 1 percent of Minnesota’s original prairie cover, 220,000 acres, remains. Most of that is untillable ground in the northwest. In this state, if it can be plowed it probably has been plowed, but Landwehr says few incentives exist within farm programs to encourage landowners to retain their grasslands. The only way to protect and manage prairie, he says, is if a government agency or nonprofit group buys it and owns it.
 
What is also needed, and the Outdoor Heritage Council is trying to address the need, is a comprehensive conservation plan for the agricultural region of the state. Current planning is piecemeal and is either focused on the enhancement of game birds, such as the DNR’s duck and pheasant plans, or is more local, such as individual watershed plans. And, because all of the groups seeking Legacy funding have their own agendas, farmland conservation efforts aren’t geared toward a common goal or toward a measurable outcome of statewide significance.

As demonstrated by TNC’s projects, Legacy funding is moving Minnesota further way from traditional land conservation, where lands are acquired and managed by state or federal wildlife conservation agencies, to a system where conservation initiatives are driven by special interest groups. While this system may open up new opportunities—nonprofits have less bureaucratic inertia than government agencies and more ability to try new conservation techniques, such as grazing leases, it also presents new challenges.

When Minnesota voters passed the Legacy Amendment in 2008, were they aware authorizing the state to give money to outside groups to buy and own land? Did the voters know state tax dollars would be used to acquire land within the state for the federal government? The issues raised by such questions go well beyond the implied conservation intent of saving a few swamps and grasslands for duck and pheasant hunting.

The questions are not limited to how conservation dollars are spent in the agricultural region. In the forest, some of these same groups, working in concert with multinational corporations, have put together land deals where corporate ownership and commercial timber production are retained and the primary public outcome is access for deer hunting. Only time will tell whether the public gets an adequate bang for its buck from any of these deals or if the public retains adequate control over the tens of thousands of acres involved in these transactions to ensure appropriate conservation occurs.

In the meantime, some of the state’s conservation advocates, many of whom have stake in Legacy funding expenditures, seem to be trying to get as much mileage as possible out of commonly held belief (at least among advocates) that conservationists can do no wrong and by vilifying anyone who dares to ask hard questions suggesting otherwise.

Maybe they’re right. Perhaps conservationists and nonprofit conservation groups walk on water. However, this viewpoint contrasts with another widely belief about human nature: The road to Hell is paved in good intentions. Here’s hoping we’re on the right path.

Airdate: August 27, 2010

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