As the guy in charge at Whitewater Wildlife Management Area for the past 30 years, Jon Cole knows where the habitat is in good shape and where it could use some work, where a prescribed burn is needed to stop woody vegetation from taking over grasslands, or where buckthorn needs to be rooted out to facilitate growth of new seedlings and other native plants in an oak woodland. For much of his career, the list of needs has been quite a bit bigger than the pot of available time and money to address them.
But over the past few years, Cole has seen things changing for the better, ever since voters approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota constitution in 2008. The amendment increased the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent, with one-third of that revenue dedicated to the Outdoor Heritage Fund for projects that restore, protect and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for game fish and wildlife.
The sales tax hike amounts to small change for the average consumer – an additional three cents on an eight-dollar purchase. But it’s making a huge difference at Whitewater. Since spring of 2011, Cole has used more than $200,000 in Outdoor Heritage funds for habitat improvement projects covering several thousand acres.
The extra money has allowed him to hire crews with the Conservation Corps of Minnesota to conduct prescribed burns on 99 sites encompassing more than 3,200 acres of forest, wetlands and prairie. It’s provided the resources to restore 124 acres of grassland by removing woody vegetation. It’s facilitated the removal of invasive species like buckthorn and honeysuckle on 71 acres of oak savanna. Nearly 300,000 oak and walnut seedlings have been planted on more than 400 acres; 30 acres of prairie have been established.
“This extra money has allowed us to accelerate proper management of wildlife habitat,” Cole said. “In the past, what we got was just a drop in the bucket.”
The habitat improvements benefit a wide variety of wildlife species, including those sought by hunters in the Whitewater, such as turkey, grouse and deer. And last year Outdoor Heritage funds were used to purchase a 120-acre in-holding that was bordered by the WMA on three sides.
But it’s not just that the money is there, Cole said. It’s also that it can carry over from one year to the next, making it easier to create longer term plans for development and management of the WMA.
“There’s still plenty that should or could be done in terms of habitat management,” Cole said. “I suppose there always will be. But we’re in a much better position now than before the Legacy Amendment passed. This is something that’s going to be benefitting wildlife and people for a long time to come.”