Outdoors panel recommends projects for legacy funding

La Salle Lake
La Salle Lake, located near Itasca State Park and the headwaters of the Mississippi River, is set to receive funding from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment next year. The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council has recommended two dozen projects to receive money for conservation and habitat restoration.
Photo Courtesy of the Trust for Public Land.

It likely wouldn't have taken long for La Salle Lake, with its deep water and rustic shoreline, to become the newest site for a northern Minnesota lake-home development.

Instead, the land surrounding the lake located near the headwaters of the Mississippi River is set to be purchased by the state with sales tax dollars from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

The council that oversees funding for the outdoors portion of the legacy money on Wednesday recommended that La Salle Lake, and two dozen other projects, receive funding starting next summer.

The $86 million recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council for land acquisition and habitat restoration projects will be presented to the Legislature for approval. The amendment approved by voters in 2008 dedicates one-third of the sales tax money raised to protect habitat.

While the recommendations could change slightly before the council sends a final bill to the Legislature in January, council chairman Mike Kilgore said they reflect a mix of new and continuing projects that preserve and restore forests, wetlands and prairies across the state.

It's the third year the council has met to decide which projects will make the most impact using as few dollars as possible. Kilgore said the first two years of funding have already led to some improvements in habitat. But he cautioned that it will take years for some projects to be completed.

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"We're dealing with restoring habitat that has been degraded or lost over a long period of time. And it takes a long-term and disciplined approach to get Minnesota back to the type of habitat -- not only the quantity, but the quality of habitat -- that Minnesotans spoke about when they voted for this amendment two years ago," Kilgore said.

The Trust for Public Land has already moved to acquire all the land surrounding La Salle Lake, which is located near Itasca State Park. If the Legislature approves it, the state would then buy the land, preventing development around the lake. The Outdoor Heritage Council recommended the project receive $4.6 million.

Bob McGillivray, project manager for the Trust for Public Land, said the lake is the second-deepest in Minnesota at 213 feet deep.

"It's absolutely beautiful," McGillivray said. "This is a rare opportunity to protect this very pristine natural resource."

Kilgore said a majority of the projects that will receive legacy funding this year aim to continue work already started.

One of the larger sums -- about $9.8 million -- will go to the conservation group Pheasants Forever to acquire land for waterfowl habitat. The group has spent most of the money it received in the past two years and will continue working with landowners to acquire more land, said Joe Pavelko, the group's conservation director.

The focus starting next summer will be to acquire land in west-central and southwestern Minnesota, where many acres of habitat have been lost to farmland.

"We're buying from willing land owners who want to see their land to go back into wildlife habitat," Pavelko said. "The land will be open to everyone, which is great."

The full list of projects recommended for funding is posted here.

Kilgore said the council had to make sure the projects weren't things that had previously been funded through the general state budget process. The council also had to line up each proposal against the language in the constitutional amendment, which specifies it must be used for conservation and habitat improvement.

One project, which would have restored the natural channels of the Mustinka River in western Minnesota, was questioned because some council members felt it was more about flood mitigation than habitat improvement. The council decided not to recommend funding for the project, also citing the high cost.