Minnesota $109M Outdoor Heritage plan with no wolf hunting

Dec. 14–There’s nothing like a good nonfight at the Minnesota Legislature.

And that’s what is shaping up — repeat: a nonfight — over nearly $109 million in outdoors funding approved Thursday by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

That’s a full reversal from last year, when the thing became a firestorm that eventually led to the governor’s veto stamp.

The spending proposal places a premium on prairie protection, includes funding for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to buy land, and funds a number of restoration projects in the metro.

Those last two items are the ones that proved more raucous than a boatside strike from a hungry muskie last year, when the Outdoor Heritage Council said nay to both.

The council recommends how the Legislature should spend the outdoors portion of Legacy Amendment proceeds — a third of the state sales tax increase approved by voters in 2008.

Despite the council’s action, some House lawmakers, led by Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, tinkered with the council’s recommendations. Dayton shot that down at the close of the legislative session, leaving the projects unfunded and underscoring questions about ability of the council and Legislature to resolve what many saw as a power struggle.

Following Thursday’s meeting, Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, said he was confident enough in the recommendations’ support that he planned to file the bill before the session begins Feb. 25. Such a move — generally reserved for noncontroversial items — could ensure early action by the Legislature and inoculate the Outdoor Heritage Fund from becoming a bargaining chip in the end-of-session politicking.

Such an outcome should prompt a sigh of relief from the hook-and-bullet boosters of the citizen-dominated Lessard-Sams council, which was established in an attempt to remove provincial, short-sighted thinking from projects intended to protect, enhance and restore wildlife habitat for generations.

Kahn herself said she was on board.

“It looks very good,” said Kahn, who last year chaired the House Legacy Committee and as such wielded tremendous influence over what was included in the final bill. “I don’t see any serious changes we’d be looking for.”

But this doesn’t mean they were singing “Kumbaya” on the Outdoor Heritage Council.

The final vote was unanimous, but there was plenty of dissent, especially over the Fond du Lac plan.

The band succeeded in winning council approval for $2.8 million to buy up to 956 acres of land near the St. Louis River in northeastern Minnesota.

That the project is an outstanding opportunity to protect forest fragmentation and wildlife — including upland, waterfowl and aquatic — was never in dispute.

The issue was, to put it bluntly, that state sales tax proceeds would buy land for the American Indians. That raised a host of legal questions, most, if not all, of which have been answered.

In the end, the bottom line is this: The land will be open to hunting and fishing to tribal and nontribal members under the exact same rules as any state-owned land within American Indian treaty rights territory, with one exception: no wolf hunting. American Indians consider wolves kin, and tribes from throughout the Upper Midwest have objected to hunting them.

That was enough to raise objections by council member Ron Schara, who objected to the band having control over any regulations. “Is this a precedent we want to set?” Schara asked of his fellow council members.

Council member Susan Olson, a lawyer by day, responded, “This precedent was set by the United States Supreme Court,” a reference to the high court’s repeated upholding of American Indian sovereignty and treaty rights.

Schara responded with a concern shared by several of his fellow council members and articulated by Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association: Who’s to stop an anti-hunting group from buying land, seeking Legacy funds and prohibiting hunting on it in violation of the spirit of the amendment? Schara said, “Would we say that some nonprofit could prohibit hunting because they have a cultural opposition to it? That’s what we’re doing.”

Olson fired back: “What we’re doing is respecting another culture’s laws that the U.S. Supreme Court has said we have to respect. It doesn’t matter that Ron Schara wants to hunt wolves.”

In the end, no one attempted to remove the project from the larger funding recommendation, and after the vote, Thomas Howes, who heads the band’s Natural Resources Program, said he was pleased the years-long process appears to be headed toward success. It was Howes who more than two years ago proposed to superiors that the band seek funding to buy the property — the first time an American Indian nation has sought Legacy Amendment funds.

“There are 11 reservations in the state, and we’re not going away,” Howes said. “We can be valuable partners with the state in protecting our natural resources, and I hope this project can show that.”

As far as the habitat-restoration projects in the metro area, several million dollars are being recommended for an array of projects. The transformation from objectionable to acceptable was a gradual one that included a summertime bus tour where metro land managers showed council members examples of habitat projects, emphasizing that they weren’t “city parks” but rather bucolic tracts of land that happened to be in the metro.

The projects most objectionable to council members, including those that involved bike trails or efforts better suited for the Legacy Amendment’s Parks and Trails Fund, weren’t included in the final plan.

Of the nearly $109 million, the habitat winner is clearly the prairie, which a number of council members described as the most endangered habitat in the state. At least $27 million is destined for prairie-centered projects, including acquisition, enhancement and restoration of virgin prairies, restored grasslands and prairie wetlands.

The emphasis wasn’t coincidence. Several council members said they believe threats to grassland habitat, mainly from agriculture, are so large that the council should rethink what’s become a custom of spreading money throughout the state.

“I don’t think it’s our job to try to balance it out over the whole population,” council member Jane Kingston said. “I come from a forest area (Eveleth), but it wouldn’t both me if we did all prairie.”

The council also rebuffed an effort by the Department of Natural Resources to weaken the council’s requirement that native prairie be given priority when acquiring grasslands with Outdoor Heritage Fund money.

Several DNR officials said the requirement was too stringent, but they failed to provide examples that swayed the council.

“Either you support prairie or you don’t,” Hansen said.

Dave Orrick can be reached at 651-228-5512. Follow him at twitter.com/OutdoorsNow.