Citizens panel recommends more conservation funding

ST. PAUL (AP) — The Reinvest in Minnesota conservation program got mixed marks from a citizens panel that looked at RIM’s 12-year record of preserving and restoring natural habitats.
“I think the department (of Natural Resources) did a good job with the money that they had,” Robert Larson, a Minneapolis attorney and chairman of the panel, said Wednesday. “But this is a capital-intensive business.”
RIM has improved more than 350,000 acres of forest, streams, prairies and wetlands throughout the state at a cost of $129 million.
But that achievement falls short of the goals set by a 1984 commission that recommended $600 million be sent on conservation over 10 years. RIM was passed by the Legislature in 1986.
Larson’s committee was appointed by Natural Resources Commissioner Rod Sando. The report will be circulated to legislators who may consider revisions of environmental law in upcoming sessions.
The committee recommends spending about $63.6 million annually on habitat protection, about six times as much as RIM has averaged each year since its inception.
It also recommends expanding RIM’s mission to include promotion of hunting, fishing, trapping and wildlife observation.
Such outdoor activities, which help participants develop an appreciation of the state’s natural resources, often get squeezed out by competing demands on Minnesotans’ leisure time, the report notes.
“It’s important for our lifestyle in Minnesota. This is not a state that embraces asphalt,” said Larson, a co-founder of Pheasants Forever, a pheasant hunting enthusiasts’ group.
Still, most of the money the panel recommends spending would go for RIM’s mainstay habitat protection programs.
One of the most popular RIM programs pays farmers and other landowners to retire flood-prone land and restore it to wildlife habitat. Although it remains their property, the landowners agree to lock up the land in long-term state-held conservation easements.
Applications to enroll land for the easements exceed available money. The report recommends spending $20 million a year on the program, more than twice the amount lawmakers approved earlier this year.
The report, which was released Friday, has yet to circulate widely among legislators.
Told of its recommendations, Sen. Bob Lessard, chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said he supports a more consistent level of funding than RIM has received over the years.
“I don’t know about $63 million, (but) we should build in an ongoing appropriation from the state,” said Lessard, DFL-International Falls. “The resources from hunting and fishing licenses just aren’t enough.”