Why we purchase land

While the Star Tribune's Jan. 12 story "DNR: Millions needed for land it already has" was accurate as far as it went, it was one-sided. It ignored large portions of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' report, which showed that the state's public lands are an economic engine that runs on a relatively modest investment. Nor is the funding gap as shocking or significant as the article implies, once you break it down.

The DNR budget analysis looked at the 5.5 million acres of state-owned forests, scientific and natural areas, wildlife management areas, water access sites, aquatic management areas and native prairie bank.

What the story did not report, but which the DNR prominently noted, is that these lands generate billions of dollars in economic activity annually, including:

•Fishing, hunting and wildlife watching generates $4.3 billion and supports 55,000 jobs.

•The total economic impact of watercraft and boat trip spending is $4 billion.

•The forest products industry has a total economic impact of $18 billion in sales and supports 89,500 jobs.

That's not even mentioning the clean-water benefits, the climate-change and clean-air benefits, the value of protecting rare and endangered plants and animals, or just the plain old joy of hiking through a woods or sitting in your boat while it floats on a Minnesota lake on a peaceful July day.

The report didn't include state parks and trails, but they are public lands, too, with a multi-billion-dollar impact on our economy.

All that money flowing in appears to come as a bargain. Using the report's figures, current management costs are slightly more than $13 a year for each Minnesotan.

I think most would agree that is a small price to protect our public lands not only for us but for our children and grandchildren. The DNR deserves praise for being good stewards of the taxpayers' money and public lands.

Of course, the DNR report and shortfall plays out against the state's $6.2 billion general fund deficit. However, maintaining these public lands currently costs $52 million.

The vast majority of that comes from fees and other dedicated funds, with only 15 percent, or less than $8 million, coming from the general fund.

Put in the context of the entire state general fund budget of approximately $15 billion dollars, this has a tiny impact on the deficit. Even if all of the general fund's environmental and natural resources spending were eliminated, the deficit would shrink less than 1 percent.

Nor is this gap between the money we have to spend on maintenance vs. the total maintenance tasks unique to public lands. There have been reports written on similar, and much larger, gaps in highway, bridge and public schools maintenance.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation's current policy plan acknowledges its gap and says the number of miles of road with poor pavement will nearly triple by 2018.

Still, no one should ever be cavalier about deficits and spending gaps. The DNR has taken its share of cuts and no doubt will take more. In relative terms, its general fund budget has declined and its reliance on fees and other dedicated funds have jumped significantly.

One thing that should not happen is a cutback in acquiring more land. Minnesota voters provided the money to protect land when they passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. Two years later, the voters' attitudes are as strong as ever.

By a 2-to-1 margin, Minnesotans said funding from the Legacy Amendment should be used to acquire more land.

That statewide telephone poll of 701 registered voters, conducted Nov. 16-21 for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership by the bipartisan research team of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates and Public Opinion Strategies, had a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.

The DNR and the Legislature will have to grapple with the shortfall. But cutting expenditures on land protection would be short-sighted and counterproductive given the major economic and quality-of-life benefits of our public land heritage.

Steve Thorne is a former DNR deputy commissioner and is current president of Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota.




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