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Guest Editorial: Minnesota needs to safeguard its land

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The small red dots on a Minnesota map published by a little-known state office are a cause for optimism in an age dominated by a depressing emphasis on short-term gain.

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The bright circles represent parcels of vulnerable and valuable land safeguarded so that future generations might enjoy the same glorious natural resources that today's Minnesotans view as a birthright.

From the Iowa border stretching to the state's international northern boundary are wetlands, prairies and other natural areas that are protected -- often in perpetuity -- thanks to a growing priority in Minnesota on using public dollars on a relatively new tool called a "conservation easement."

These easements leave the land in private (and property-tax-paying) hands, but pay the landowner to permanently forgo certain uses, such as development. These restrictions stay in place as the property changes owners.

The map, published on the ­Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) website, is a reminder of both the promise of conservation easements and of the need to constantly improve the process by which they're acquired and managed to ensure the millions in state dollars spent on them annually deliver the maximum public benefit.

Close to $190 million was spent by the state on easements between 2001 and 2011 -- more than doubling acreage -- according to a new report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor. Issued this month, the report is likely the deepest evaluation of easements in Minnesota to date. It's particularly timely given that money available from the 2008 Legacy Amendment sales tax increase will continue to fuel easement growth in the state well into the future.

The limitations of the LCCMR map highlight a number of concerns raised in the report. While valuable, the map only shows easements and other land acquisitions purchased with lottery trust fund proceeds over the past eight years. These are but a slice of the easements that have been acquired with state dollars over the past few decades.

Yet there is no centralized, publicly searchable database that shows the locations of all state-funded easements -- a situation the Legislature should fix. That's problematic when easement holders range from big state agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to less well-known bodies such as the Board of Water and Soil Resources. Private nonprofits such as Ducks Unlimited and the Minnesota Land Trust also hold a small percentage of state-funded easements, but do not post this information, the report said.

The public, which is funding easements, deserves to know what has been purchased with the money, especially when easement acreage may not always be available for public use. Increasing transparency would also help improve oversight.

The report also raised concerns about the DNR's easement monitoring through the years and found a stunning example of how one easement property had been clear-cut. While the agency often hasn't been given adequate resources to regularly check for easement violations, part of the problem also appears to be scattershot record-keeping of easement locations.

Questions also understandably persist about state funds for long-term easement stewardship being held by some private nonprofits outside the state treasury.

The auditor's report generally gave solid marks to Minnesota's use of state-funded easements. There are horror stories from other states on easement deals rife with conflicts of interest. The auditors found good policies in place in Minnesota to prevent that. The pragmatic improvements they've suggested would add to improvements that have been made over the past few years.

Among the other recommendations that should be quickly embraced by lawmakers: requiring a state agency such as the DNR to approve easement agreements relying on $500,000 or more in state funds. And, requiring all private nonprofit easement holders to seek or maintain accreditation by the respected Land Trust Accreditation Commission (current nonprofit easement holders in Minnesota already have this).

Lawmakers should require more ongoing evidence of easements' public benefit and how outcomes fit with state conservation goals. That may not be easy to do, since improvements in clean water, for example, may take time to accrue. It's also not clear how the value of easements protecting "habitat" can be measured, but with thousands more acres slated to come under protection for this purpose, we need to try harder to ensure that the most appropriate land is being ­chosen.

This fair, thorough report should be required reading for lawmakers. Its recommendations offer an excellent road map for the state to improve upon its use of an important conservation tool.

-- Minneapolis Star Tribune

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