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In MN, buffer debate for farmers ranges from U.S. Constitution to timing

Allen Wold of Wheaton, Minn., testifies Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in front of two Minnesota House committees looking into a state law requiring a plant buffer strip between cropland and water. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)1 / 4
Peter Mead of the Becker County, Minn., Soil and Water Conservation District talks to two Minnesota House committees Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, about state law requiring plant buffers between crops and water. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)2 / 4
Kandiyhohi County Commissioner Harlan Madsen, left, awaits his turn to testify in front of two Minnesota House committees Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, about state law requiring plant buffers between crops and water. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)3 / 4
Gary Haugen of Clinton, Minn., left, awaits his turn to testify to two state House committees Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, about state law requiring plant buffers between crops and water. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)4 / 4

ST. PAUL—Nearly two years into a Minnesota law requiring plant buffers between cropland and water, some farmers remain furious.

They say the 2015 buffer law violates the U.S. Constitution provision saying no "private property (can) be taken for public use without just compensation," that buffers take too much land out of crops and lower its value, that discussion about options to planting 50-foot buffers is starting too late and that farmers know what is best for their own land.

In other words, arguments made against the law two years ago remain alive.

State Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, has authored a bill to repeal the buffer law. Some other Republicans agree. Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said he expects major changes to the law, one that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton pushed hard.

However, the House author of the 2015 bill, who negotiated the Dayton plan to be less demanding on farmers, said some clarifications are needed, but existing law is flexible enough to work for farmers while improving water.

Some counties are far along in adding buffers, Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said, but some are behind and may not hit buffer deadlines later this year and next year.

"I think we are in good enough shape that we can keep this moving forward and accommodate the needs of some of these counties," he said.

State House environment and agriculture committees met for four hours Thursday, Jan. 19, to listen to an update about how the 2015 law is working. They heard extremes.

Steve Colvin of the Department of Natural Resources said maps showing where buffers are needed are nearly complete, with local and state workers making good progress in settling disputes with landowners.

On the other hand, farmers like Scott Gillespie of western Minnesota's Johnson see problems, lots of problems.

"This is a one-size-fits-all (law) that does not fit all," he said.

Stan Overgaard of Dalton, Minn., right, testifies to two House committees Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017. (photo by Don Davis)

Farmer Gary Haugen of Clinton, also in western Minnesota, complained that even though the law allows other practices than buffers, "we just keep talking buffer, buffer, buffer."

Farmers said state officials involved in the buffer law are just now working up alternatives to buffers, such as berms along streams and low tillage practices. However, Haugen said, "I don't think we are going to get it done by this fall."

The first deadline for landowners to comply with the law is Nov. 1. The second deadline, when all buffer requirements must be completed, is a year later.

Torkelson said that instead of extending the deadlines, he would like to state to say landowners meet the deadlines if they are making progress.

Dayton wanted the buffer law to help clean the state's water, especially in southern and western Minnesota where farming is concentrated. He pushed the concept after receiving reports that much of the water in the area is unsafe to drink and fish are dangerous to eat.

Buffers or alternatives are designed to filter pollutants, including farm chemicals, and to keep sediment from running into water.

But Allen Wold of Wheaton, near where Haugen and Gillespie farm, had several complaints, including saying the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources is "writing its own law."

He also said that haying equipment is too big to be used on some of the buffers, so buffers "render the land economically useless."

Wold claimed the buffer law violates the U.S. Constitution, which forbids government from taking land from Americans without properly paying them.

Dayton administration officials, however, say that landowners who are required to install buffers still control the land.

Environmentalists told the two House committees Thursday that they want the buffer law improved, but begged that it remain on the books.

Colvin said he is confident landowners will be able to see maps of where buffers are needed in time to meet deadlines later this year and next year. But Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, said farmers must do "an incredible amount of work" before then.

"It will be good to go this winter," Colvin assured Miller.

Executive Director John Jaschke said most work so far has been mapping on computers, but people still need to confirm in person where buffers are needed.

Jaschke said several programs are available, or proposed, to compensate landowners for land removed from fields and put into buffers. A tax credit Dayton proposed will be considered by lawmakers this year, and a new federal-state program announced this week will pay for 30,000 acres to be put into buffers.

Jaschke said the buffer program is important. "In some cases, it is the last chance to treat the water."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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