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Tight budget doesn't stop outdoors issues

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators will be trapped indoors for most of the next few months, but for many their minds will be outdoors.

They will debate establishing a new state park, cleaning the state's water, limiting how many walleyes may be caught, whether to raise the sales tax to support outdoors programs and how to preserve forests.

Like with most other issues, outdoors advocates realize there is not much money available this year - due to shrinking state revenues blamed on a sputtering economy.

"This year we may be more focused on the regulation and the mandates," said Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

An exception to no new funding is in the state public works bill, in which Gov. Tim Pawlenty calls for borrowing more than $140 million for outdoors-related projects.

For environmental and related groups, that figure fall far short of what they want. A coalition of outdoors groups, the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, wants more than twice that amount spent.

The most discussed outdoors issue, which made it much of the way through the Legislature last year, would put more money into the outdoors. It would send Minnesota voters a proposed constitutional amendment to slightly raise sales taxes to support outdoors and arts programs.

With top House and Senate leaders behind the amendment, it appears likely to pass early in the legislative session, which starts Feb. 12. However, that is when the real work begins because attention will turn to convincing voters to approve raising their own taxes.

Steve Morse, the environmental partnership's executive director, predicted the campaign would cost more than $4 million.

If the amendment is on the fast track, not so for Pawlenty's proposal to buy 2,500 acres of land along Lake Vermilion in northeastern Minnesota from U.S. Steel, which planned to develop it for housing.

Negotiations continue between the company and state. Pawlenty recently said the cost of buying the land should fall below the $30 million to $40 million state officials originally expected.

However, the governor refused to be more specific about the final cost.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity," state parks director Courtland Nelson said. "It will not sail by again."

"It is going to be a very tough sell," said Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who lives along Lake Vermilion.

His colleague, Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, has doubts about a new park. His district alone already has 10 parks, and like others he questioned whether there is enough money spent on existing parks.

One of the problems mentioned by park opponents is the park would take 2,500 acres off the property tax roll, reducing money paid to local governments.

"Northern Minnesota is very divided on whether this is a good idea," Bakk said. "Other things will be put on the back burner because of this."

Bakk, one of the Senate's leaders, predicted the Pawlenty park effort will fail.

"I don't think we can get there," Bakk said. "It is such a big project and there are so many other pressing needs."

On the other hand, the Pawlenty administration is pushing hard to win park approval, with support of some key Democrats.

"I haven't heard anyone except for the local folks ... say they don't think it is a good idea to acquire this land and save it from future development," said Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul. "If we don't protect this, future generations will miss so much."

But more than one of her colleagues questioned the purchase.

"There always is going to be another mile of lakeshore that needs to be protected in this state, and we can't buy them all," Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, said.

Buying the park land would be funded by lottery revenues already earmarked for outdoors uses.

Bob Meier, assistant Department of Natural Resources commissioner, said state money often is tight, but in the past parks have been added even in tough economic times.

Camping and other fees the DNR raised last year are going to improve parks around the state, so Meier said that a new park should not take money away from existing facilities.

The average Minnesotans would feel no fiscal impact due to a new park, Meier said, although it would reduce by up to $3 million the money a legislative commission can spend each year for other outdoors programs.

"We are just saying this is a wise use of your money," Meier said.

Other outdoors-related projects include efforts to preserve Minnesota's 16 million acres of forest.

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, is a champion of that cause.

He said one of the biggest problems is there is a patchwork of landowners and uses of forests.

Saxhaug proposes allowing the state to pay owners to not develop forest land. He also would allow for the exchange of forest lands so governmental units such as the state or a county would own larger parcels of adjacent land instead of owning small pieces of land here and there.

If lawmakers reduce forest fragmentation, especially in northern Minnesota, it will help not only the forest industry, but also recreation and wildlife interests, Saxhaug said.

"It is not just the forest industry doing in for a land grab," he said.

Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, plans to introduce provisions to reduce the allowable walleye catch and to move the fishing opener a week earlier.

His proposal is to cut from six to four the number of walleyes an angler may possess.

Meier said DNR officials still are looking at Chaudhary's proposals, although it probably is not practical to move the fishing season up because many northern Minnesota lakes still are ice covered in early May, and many fish are spawning when Chaudhary would open fishing season.

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.