Citizen conservationists leaving own legacy through Legacy funding

(Released October 30, 2013)

More trout stream access, quality habitat thanks to private landowners 
    
In 2008, when Minnesota voters added the Legacy Amendment to the state constitution, no one imagined their ballot would compel a beef and crop farmer in southeastern Minnesota to help improve the quality of the river that cuts through his land and open it to public fishing.

Yet that’s what happened.

In northeastern Minnesota, citizen conservationists are doing much the same along the streams that flow into Lake Superior.

“My goal was to reduce erosion into the North Branch of the Root River,” said Matt Hanson, who farms between Chatfield and Stewartville. “That’s happening thanks to the Legacy Amendment . . .  plus anglers have perpetual public access to about 2 miles of river.”

On the fifth anniversary of the Legacy Amendment vote, Hanson’s tale is but one of hundreds that exemplify how sales tax revenue in the Outdoor Heritage Fund is making Minnesota better. In his case, he is among many private landowners who enrolled in a trout stream conservation easement program managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The Minnesota Legislature provided $2.5 million of Legacy funds to the DNR for this program in 2011. The allocation’s sole purpose is to purchase shoreline easements from willing sellers in the name of stream protection, habitat improvement and access to fishing. Citizen demand has temporarily outstripped the government’s funding.

“Many landowners are leaving a conservation legacy that would not have occurred without this funding,” said Jim Melander, DNR easement coordinator in southeastern Minnesota. “In fact, we’ve seen instances in which one landowner has signed-up for an easement, then so does the neighbor and so does the neighbor after that.”

Wildcat Creek near Brownsville in Houston County reflects that phenomenon. “What began as a 1,500-foot easement has led to more than a mile-long easement corridor thanks to multiple adjacent landowners,” Melander said. One of the easements protects bank springs that feed the creek and keep it cool so trout can survive. It’s also providing access to good trout fishing that never existed before.

Pat Rivers, DNR habitat acquisition leader, said the Legacy-funded easement program is not only making a difference but doing it efficiently. “It’s proactive and strategic,” Rivers said. “Since our fisheries managers have already identified priority watersheds and stream sections, we target dollars where they will deliver the best results.” He added that a steady and long-term stream of revenue is enabling managers to plan years ahead in ways that never existed before.

“When you look at a land ownership map, you’ll see Minnesota’s trout streams flow through a checker board of public and private ownerships,” Rivers said. “With steady funding you can look at that map, identify opportunities to create easement corridors and know that you’re being strategic and systematic.”    

Moreover, he said, the cash-for-easement formula is straightforward, which makes it simple for government and citizen alike. Landowners are compensated one time at $5 per stream foot plus the local land value rate for the acreage involved. “Since there’s little to negotiate there’s high transactional efficiency,” Rivers said.

About 12 miles of easements have been acquired in southeastern Minnesota and a similar amount in the northeast. Typically, easements are 66 feet from the center of the stream in both directions but some are wider or narrower. Easements prohibit the landowner from taking actions that would harm the stream. They also provide DNR crews with access to the water so they can assess fish populations, improve fish habitat, and slope, stabilize and seed eroding banks that contribute sediment to streams. In some instances, such as the Hanson property, small parking areas are created for anglers.

In northeastern Minnesota, the DNR has acquired easements on many Lake Superior trout streams, including the French, Sucker, and Cascade rivers. The easements provide angler access in addition to protecting the streams from development so the water stays cold as it flows downstream to Lake Superior. Priorities were given to parcels that connect other easements so anglers can fish, and wildlife can move uninterrupted along these riparian corridors. Frequently, initial easements are located where roads cross streams providing anglers easy access.

Gordon Hommes and wife Nancy MacGibbon of Two Harbors are among those in the Arrowhead who have put a conservation easement on their property. The Stewart River flows from county land onto their 10-acre property and exits onto county land.

“We have an obligation to future generations,” said Hommes, noting their easement is a way of preserving the watershed, sustaining brook trout, and creating a public fishing corridor that links two county parcels together. He added that in the face of climate change it makes sense to keep natural systems healthy through long-term protection. “The trout streams up here are typically fed by groundwater that flows from the bogs rather than underground springs. Anything we can do help keep the water cool, especially in summer when temperatures are high and water flow can be low, will help.”

Jamie Juenemann, a DNR fisheries technician working on corridor acquisitions in northeastern Minnesota, said the conservation easement program is working hand-in-glove with the Great Lakes Basin Fish Habitat Partnership.

“Together, we’ve identified high priority riparian areas and prioritized them,” Juenemann said. “And since protection is far more cost effective than restoration we’re going to get good long-term value from these investments.”

The trout stream easement program is just one of many programs funded by Legacy dollars that flow into the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Thirty-three percent of the sales tax revenue from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment is distributed to the Outdoor Heritage Fund. These funds may be spent only to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife. The Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council (LSOHC) was established by the legislature to provide annual recommendations on how the Outdoor Heritage funds should be used.

For more information about the Legacy Amendment, visit www.mndnr.gov/legacy.