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Citizen-led committee would guide potential new Minnesota conservation spending

In a move that pleased conservationists, the Minnesota Legislature has created a citizen-led council to recommend how potential new money for wildlife habitat will be spent by the Legislature.

The state's sporting and conservation groups believed it was important to have the council in place before Minnesotans vote this fall on a constitutional amendment that would generate about $91 million annually for wildlife habitat.

The Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council would be made up of eight citizens and four legislators who have experience related to the environment and natural resources, said Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

"It's 85 to 90 percent of what we thought were the important ingredients," said Duluth conservationist Dave Zentner, co-chairman of the Rally for Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water. "It was really important that this happened. People didn't want this [authority] going to the DNR [Department of Natural Resources]. There's been an awful lot of conversation by the players in Minnesota to bring people back into the conversation, to be less centralized, less top-down."

The council is named for former state Sen. Bob Lessard, DFL-International Falls, who fought for nine years to get dedicated funding for wildlife habitat and clean water. The council would not have final authority over how the new money is spent but would make recommendations to the Legislature.

The Legislature passed a bill early in the session calling for a constitutional amendment ballot vote this fall on spending for wildlife, clean water and the arts. If the amendment passes, 3/8 of 1 percent would be added to the state sales tax. One-third would go to wildlife habitat, another third to clean water and another third to parks, trails and arts.

The Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council would recommend spending priorities for the expected $91 million annually for wildlife habitat. It also would create a matching grants program under which local, regional and national conservation groups could get matching money for habitat projects.

"It will ensure hunters and anglers that the money will go where it's supposed to go," said Garry Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for Change, which lobbied for the council. "And if a club wants to restore a trout stream, it can get a matching grant to do so."

"The council was a keystone," Lessard said. "When we went around the state speaking to groups, the first question asked was, 'Where's the money going to go?' "

Former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant of Bloomington, Minn., also lobbied for the ballot measure and the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council. He and Lessard both cited their experience with the state's Environmental Trust Fund, generated from state lottery receipts. Not as much money ended up going to the outdoors as was originally planned, they said. That's why broad citizen representation on the Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council is important, Grant said.

"We took the power of the Legislature to steal that money for their own projects," he said.