The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 8, 2013

Cross: Our grandkids will one day thank us

By John Cross
The Mankato Free Press

---- — I finally bought a new, used pickup truck a couple of months ago to replace the tired, rusty one that had rolled up nearly a quarter-million miles on the odometer.

Talking round numbers, I ended up parting with about $17,000 cash in the deal for the fresh set of wheels, a sizable-but-manageable sum for an ink-stained newspaper guy.

Of course, there then was the sales tax to pay. But more of that later.

It’s been five years since Minnesota voters went to the polls and approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

Passing the amendment — which called for increasing the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent until the year 2034, with proceeds dedicated to the improvement and protection of natural resources, the arts and culture of Minnesota — was the easy part.

After all, we Minnesotans love the great outdoors.

Many of us also appreciate the intangible value that arts and culture bring to our quality of life.

Voters approved it by a 2-to-1 margin.

The toughest part, really, had been to get the Minnesota Legislature, which historically hates the idea of dedicated funds, to agree to put the amendment question to the voters at all.

But citizens who had grown weary of watching the continued erosion of the state’s natural resources after years of getting short-shrifted in the budgeting process kept lawmakers’ feet to the fire.

Finally, after years of lobbying by conservation groups and others, they listened and the measure was placed on ballot in November 2008.

Now in 2013, the Legacy Amendment already has generated about a billion dollars, the lion’s share finding its way back into conservation efforts.

Shortly after the amendment’s passage, I received a call from a representative from a taxpayers’ group who took issue with my and other Minnesota citizens’ support of the Legacy Amendment.

“We’re going to work hard to get it repealed,” he promised.

Not a chance, I told him.

Today, it’s still part of the State Constitution and I’m just as certain the Legacy Amendment was a good and necessary thing.

Key to its passage, at least from a sportsman’s viewpoint, was that a third of the funds would be earmarked for the Outdoor Heritage Fund and “spent only to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for fish, game and wildlife.”

If you’re a hunter and have lived in this area for any time at all, perhaps you’ve noticed the new public wildlife areas — Federal Waterfowl Production Areas and State Wildlife Management Areas — that have appeared during the last four years or so.

Thanks to the Outdoor Heritage Fund, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been able to accelerate a program to establish more WMAs.

Through partnerships with groups like Blue Earth County Pheasants Inc., Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited and others, even in the face of escalating land values, the DNR has been able to establish WMAs at an greater pace than in previous years.

According to Pat Rivers, DNR Habitat Acquisition Leader, more than 10,000 acres and 73 WMAs have been acquired since Legacy Funds became available.

On a federal level, acquisition of WPAs also has been accelerated.

And virtually all of those acres of wildlife habitat are open to public hunting and other forms of outdoor recreation.

Naysayers would argue that the last thing Minnesota needs is more publicly owned land, that the DNR can’t properly manage what they already have.

There may be shreds of truth in that opinion. However, the vast majority of publicly held land is found in northern Minnesota. In farmland areas, that percentage is far smaller — less than 2 percent in most counties.

Optimizing wildlife habitat has always been very labor intensive and DNR resources traditionally have been stretched.

But the Legacy Fund has made it possible to form roving maintenance crews, either of agency staff or private contractors to work on habitat issues on public lands.

And habitat management notwithstanding, from a pheasant’s point-of-view, even a minimally managed WMA is of more value than yet one more cornfield.

Finally, probably most important is that a WMA or WPA is permanent.

Contrast that with the Conservation Reserve Program, which for nearly three decades has been the backbone of wildlife habitat, soil and water conservation.

Billions have been spent since 1985 to entice landowners to transform cropland into grassland for that purpose.

But now, with many CRP contracts expiring and with high commodity prices, much of that grassland once again has been plowed down and put back into production.

It is becoming apparent that all of those billions of dollars have bought us nothing permanent.

But wildlife acres paid for with Legacy money are permanent; they’ll always be there.

And this just isn’t about creatures with fur or feathers.

Nearly 12 miles of permanent trout stream easements in southeastern Minnesota and another 12 miles in northeast Minnesota have been bought and paid for with Legacy funds.

Habitat improvements and soil erosion control measures along those streams have been made possible through Legacy funds, as well.

All of this brings me back to that sales tax I paid for that truck:

I’m a journalist, so my math might be a little bit fuzzy, but by my figuring, three-eighths of 1 percent, the legacy portion of state sales tax I paid on the $17,000 comes out to $63 and change.

I’m not sure I’ll still be chasing pheasants, deer or ducks, stalking along a stream bank for trout, in 2034, when the Legacy Amendment expires.

But I have a hunch that my grandkids, your grandkids will be.

And they’ll look around at what we started in 2008 when we went to the polls and approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

They’re gonna say, “By golly, grandpa sure got it right.”

For that, $63 like a bargain.