Conservationists seek Legacy money for riverside land, moose habitat

Mississippi River Northwoods Habitat Complex
The Trust for Public Land and its partners are seeking $14.5 million in Legacy money to purchase land on the south side of the Mississippi River just north of Brainerd. The area, shown above, is being called the Mississippi River Northwoods Habitat Complex and is home to shallow waters and wild rice thickets.
Photo by Chris Stockness courtesy of the Trust for Public Land

Wild rice thickets and calm waters make the Mississippi River just north of Brainerd look more like a shallow lake than a river. For Becca Nash, it might just be part of the most beautiful piece of land she's tried to transfer into public hands.

"It's amazing," said Nash, project manager for the Trust for Public Land, where she's worked for 12 years. "There's wild rice like you wouldn't believe, and the shallow-lake characteristics help create these micro-niche habitats for fish and waterfowl. The topography on the site makes it so interesting and so scenic."

That's why the organization and its partners are seeking $14.5 million from the Legacy Amendment's outdoors fund to buy the 2,000-acre parcel on the south side of the river. The land is currently owned by a forestry company.

On Wednesday, Nash will make her pitch to the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, arguing that next year's fund include the purchase of what's being called the Mississippi River Northwoods Habitat Complex.

The council will hear about 40 different proposals asking for a total of $200 million during a marathon two days of hearings starting Wednesday. Later this month, the council will narrow the list — only up to $96 million of the dedicated sales-tax money will be available for the fiscal year beginning next July.

Minnesota voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2008 to send money from a new 3/8-cent sales tax to the outdoors, clean water, parks and the arts. The Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council is charged with deciding how to spend a third of the sales tax revenues to protect, restore and enhance prairies, wetlands and forests across the state.

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Council members have already reviewed the 40 proposals and assigned each project a score based on how well the project fits with the council's mission. A Legacy grant program administered by the Department of Natural Resources received the top score, followed by a $25 million request for the RIM-WRP Partnership, which has worked to restore drained wetlands and grasslands through permanent conservation easements on private lands.

If positions don't change much after the hearings, the Mississippi River Northwoods project will likely be funded, as it was ranked ninth. Other projects, including one to enhance moose habitat in northeastern Minnesota, are hoping their pitch this week will persuade the council to include them on the list, which will be finalized Sept. 20.

"The real question we're asking is do we want moose in Minnesota in the future? We all say yes," said Mark Johnson, who will present the habitat enhancement proposal at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday on behalf of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and several partner organizations.

"The real question we're asking is do we want moose in Minnesota in the future? We all say yes."

The Minnesota Moose Habitat Collaborative is asking for about $6.6 million, which would be used over the next three years to enhance 18,000 acres of public moose habitat in Lake, Cook and St. Louis counties. Old twigs and brush would be removed in places to make it easier for new plants that moose feed on to grow.

"When that gets too old, it gets too woody for the moose," Johnson said. "We need to replenish that browse."

The project, which was ranked 27th out of 40 before the hearings, also involves some planting and prescribed burning. The enhancement could also benefit other species such as deer, grouse and woodcock, Johnson said.

Minnesota's moose population has been declining since 2002. A warmer climate and disease are among the possible culprits. Johnson said the moose has long been northeastern Minnesota's icon, but it's becoming harder and harder for visitors to catch a glimpse of one.

"This is a problem we've got to start answering," he said.

The list of proposals includes a mix of projects in outstate Minnesota and projects closer to the Twin Cities. One project closer to the Twin Cities area is asking for nearly $8.5 million to protect nearly 1,200 acres of land along three big rivers: the Crow, St. Croix and Minnesota.

The money would also go toward restoration and enhancement efforts on nearly 500 acres, said Deb Loon, executive director of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Trust, one of five nonprofits working on the project. Restoration and enhancement includes removing invasive buckthorn and planting trees, she said.

More than half of the land acquisition would take place along the Minnesota River, and much of it is floodplain land, Loon said.

"It starts by Fort Snelling, and we're working on completely filling it in all the way down to the Henderson-LeSueur area," she said. "Uses will vary depending on the particular site, but these lands could be for hunting, fishing, environmental education, wildlife viewing ... they're great places for anyone who enjoys walking or being in wild areas."

The Metro Big Rivers Habitat is ranked 11th among the 40 projects, giving it a good chance of being funded. But several other projects received a similar average score, so there could be changes to the ranking after the hearings.

After finalizing the list of projects on Sept. 20, the council and its staff will work out details and will prepare recommendations to send to the Legislature by the end of the year. Traditionally, lawmakers have gone forward with the council's recommendations.

Links to descriptions of each project proposal are available at the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.