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Legacy partners work transparently to create lasting public assets; story missed the mark

The Outdoor Heritage Fund has given the public access to an additional 17,000 acres of Wildlife Management Areas, Waterfowl Production Areas, and Aquatic Management Areas, protected 25 miles of trout stream shoreline, and preserved for public use more than 180,000 acres of working forest.

It is with great dismay that I saw MinnPost decided to republish an article from Twin Cities Business Monthly (Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment: Whose Legacy Is It?).  The article was not up to the journalistic standards that Minnesotans have come to expect from MinnPost, and as such, it failed the readers of this publication.    

Paul Austin

I’ll start with a bit of history for the uninitiated. 

In 2008, the citizens of Minnesota overwhelmingly voted to increase their own sales taxes and allocate the new money toward protecting and preserving the water resources, outdoor heritage, parks, trails and arts institutions that are the lifeblood of communities throughout our state. What Minnesotans created in the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment was groundbreaking; after the first five years of this 25-year initiative, it is clearly paying off.  

The Clean Water Fund has doubled the pace of testing and monitoring pollution in our waters, leveraged federal funds to clean up the St. Louis River in Duluth, and fixed hundreds of failing septic systems that were spilling untreated human waste directly into our lakes and rivers. The Outdoor Heritage Fund has given the public access to an additional 17,000 acres of Wildlife Management Areas, Waterfowl Production Areas, and Aquatic Management Areas, protected 25 miles of trout stream shoreline, and preserved for public use more than 180,000 acres of working forest. The Parks & Trails Fund has increased state park permit sales by 18 percent, restored 34 miles of state trails, and funded dozens of additions and enhancements to our parks systems.

The Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund has funded arts opportunities in every region of the state, increased arts audiences by 21 percent, and provided more than 10,000 teachers access to expanded history teaching and training tools. That’s just a sample of results that the will and wisdom of Minnesota voters has made possible in the past five years.

Strangely, the TCB article took issue with one of the most positive aspects of the Legacy Amendment, having citizen experts assist the Legislature in deciding how to use the funds most effectively. They were particularly critical of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC), which was created by the Legislature to recommend expenditures from the Outdoor Heritage Fund.

A transparent process for a specific mandate

The LSOHC reviews grant proposals, matching the proposed activities to the goals in the Minnesota Conservation and Preservation Plan. In particular, they are responsible for addressing the restoration, protection, and enhancement of wetlands, prairies, forests, and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife, preventing forest fragmentation, encouraging forest consolidation, and expanding restored native prairie. These are the constitutional and statutory uses of the money.

This body does its work in public, increasing the transparency surrounding spending of the Outdoor Heritage Fund. After hearing from conservationists and resource scientists attending public meetings throughout Minnesota, the council established priorities for Legacy grants and submits them to the Legislature for approval. 

The operation of the LSOHC is about as transparent as government can be. Yet the article chose to imply that that council was rife with conflict and confusion. 

To make this case, the article singles out Pheasants Forever and inaccurately calls into question the contributions from one of our state’s most respected conservation organizations.

Restoration and protection

Pheasants Forever has a professional staff who works in conjunction with partners at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to deliver Legacy-funded terrestrial and aquatic publicly protected habitat. These natural resources move Minnesota effectively toward the state’s wetland, prairie/grassland, forest and other habitat goals. Pheasants Forever has brought in $11 million dollars in matching funds, and have stretched taxpayers’ dollars 25 percent further by bringing their own chapter and partner dollars to these projects. All told, only 1 percent of Legacy funds granted to Pheasants Forever are used to cover the organization’s costs for implementation.

But rather than show them as a success story of the Legacy Amendment’s public-private partnership, the article lazily assumes that the organization is literally using their portion of the legacy dollars to simply preserve pheasant hunting grounds.

In fact, every grant awarded to Pheasants Forever has been for the restoration or permanent protection of publicly owned prairies, wetlands or transitional brush land habitat. Prairies and wetlands are the two fastest-disappearing ecosystems on our planet, on our continent, and in our state. That’s why the sharp tailed grouse of eastern Minnesota is nearing local extinction. 

Had that other publication’s writers ever set foot on one of Pheasants Forever’s Legacy projects they’d most certainly have seen ring-necked pheasants, but they’d also have viewed rabbits, deer, turkeys, waterfowl, cranes, sharp-tailed grouse, monarch butterflies, bluebirds, purple coneflower, lupine, big bluestem, hunters, birdwatchers and nature hikers — prairie and wetland habitat exactly as outlined in the state’s goals above.

Every project results in a public asset

The article also misrepresents, at least three different times, the role of nonprofit organizations in implementing legacy projects by saying this funding serves private instead of public interests. The truth is that every project to protect or restore wildlife habitat results in a public asset, with public access and entirely public benefit.

Ultimately, I think the article missed the mark because of the way it responds to the question headlining the story. Whose Legacy is it? 

For me, that question gets answered regularly by the smile on my son’s face that’s even bigger than the fish he’s caught, by my 3-year-old daughter excitedly pointing out a woodpecker on our most recent hike, and hearing them both laugh at our local theater’s production of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”  The Legacy belongs to our children, grandchildren and future generations who will get to experience the Minnesota we cherish today. It is being made real through the hard work and dedication of volunteers and community organizations working together with public officials and employees. Their work isn’t perfect. But all of them deserve better than inaccurate and politicized reporting of their efforts.

Paul Austin is executive director of Conservation Minnesota, a statewide organization focused on protecting Minnesota’s outdoors and providing reliable information to help people make important decisions for their families, communities and future. Part of this mission includes monitoring the Legacy Amendment. Conservation Minnesota does not receive any Legacy Funds. 

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 02/18/2014 - 01:30 pm.

    Thank you.

    Very informative.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/18/2014 - 02:09 pm.

    If the article criticized was “inaccurate and politicized,” it would help the credibility of this piece, defending the citizen advisory council and Pheasants Unlimited, to be specific: What, precisely, was “inaccurate”? And How was the issue “politicized”?

    Without those specifics, this piece is simply an egregiously defensive statement of why all of us–including millions in the Twin Cities metro area–voted for the Amendment in the first place. Duh.

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 02/19/2014 - 08:37 pm.

    But isn’t it really a high-class slush fund?

    How would an ordinary citizen describe a governmental or semi-state body that grants public money based on decisions of a board or panel that has little or no accountability and is run, at least in part, by representatives of the vested interests to which it makes grants?

    The fact that Pheasants Forever has been the recipient of such obvious favoritism serves to call attention to a serious problem, out of sheer egregiousness, regardless of any merits of Pheasants Forever.

    I’m most familiar with the problems posed by such publicly funded agencies in the arts, and I pointed out these issues during testimony on that part of the Legacy Amendment fund at state legislative hearings. I even offered to help plan an innovative structure and process to minimize such problems. As I expected, the legislators didn’t recognize the problems, much less seek solutions.

    To put it in the most general and basic terms, it seems to me that this matter boils down to a governmental body running rough shod over due process and equal protection.

    In the arts, the subjective or arbitrary governmental decision-making processes for grant giving have been justified on the basis of a seeking after “quality,” whatever that means, but history will likely continue to show that the decisions were usually poor ones that may have neglected worthier recipients.

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