Outdoors enthusiasts rally for funding

ST. PAUL -- David Lais had a bright orange hat on his head and the future of Minnesota's natural resources on his mind. Lais, an outdoorsman from New London, joined other conservation advocates on the Capitol grounds Saturday to rally for a const...

ST. PAUL -- David Lais had a bright orange hat on his head and the future of Minnesota's natural resources on his mind.

Lais, an outdoorsman from New London, joined other conservation advocates on the Capitol grounds Saturday to rally for a constitutional amendment dedicating tax dollars to the outdoors. More state money is needed, he said, so that wildlife habitats can be preserved for further generations.

"If you don't have the dollars to jump on it, you lose the opportunity forever," he said.

Lais was among participants of the second-annual Rally for Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water, held this year on Earth Day. The event has served as a collective voice for outdoors advocates - hunters, fishing enthusiasts and environmentalists - who want the Legislature to give voters a chance this fall to decide whether the state constitution should be amended to secure conservation funding.

Dedicated revenue could help outdoors groups protect more private property around valuable wetlands, said Bob Usgaard, a Fergus Falls-based regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited.


Usgaard, who was working at the rally, said as land is bought and developed, shallow lakes disappear and water quality deteriorates. A consistent source of state dollars could draw attention to the issue and be used to access more matching funds from the federal government, he said.

"It has benefits that reach far beyond wildlife," Usgaard said of protecting habitats. "Dedicated funding is going to help to help bring that to the table."

Conservation groups have advocated for an outdoors amendment for at least seven years as traditional state aid for natural resources has been reduced. The initiative has reached its farthest point in the legislative process this year - partially the result of stepped-up pressure from the advocates. If a proposed amendment is approved, it would appear on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Woods, wildlife and water will be lost if lawmakers don't let Minnesotans vote on constitutional amendment, said Lance Ness, a leading advocate and rally organizer.

"Conservation takes dedication," he said.

Earlier this month the Minnesota Senate approved a proposed constitutional amendment dedicating revenue from a sales tax increase to habitat protection, water cleanup projects, parks and trails and arts programs. In that proposal, voters statewide would decide whether the sales tax should be raised by 37 cents on $100 spent.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, told the camouflage-clad crowd outside the Capitol Saturday that senators did their part and are ready to negotiate a final bill.

"The Minnesota Senate has delivered," Johnson said. His comments were followed by shouts of "No arts!" from some rally participants opposed to the Senate's provision benefiting arts and humanities groups.


Lawmakers and advocates are split over whether expanding the proposal to include the arts and public broadcasting would help or hurt the issue at the polls.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum told the group that he is following through on a promise to "casters and blasters" that the House bill will be sent to the full body as a "clean" proposal funding only conservation programs.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who supports dedicated conservation funding but doesn't have authority to sign or veto constitutional amendment bills, said Minnesotans should leave the outdoors in better shape for future generations.

"Let's quit dinking around and get this thing passed," Pawlenty said at the event.

Rally participant John Lindquist of rural Evansville is cautiously optimistic.

"They've promised before and they haven't delivered, but I feel confident that we're going to get it done," he said of legislators.

Lindquist, who works with the Christina Ina Anka Lake Association in Douglas County, said he's concerned that without more money for natural resources, the state's air, soil and water will be further harmed.

"If one of them goes to pot, we're dead," he said.


The outdoors rally was particularly timely this year as the House is expected to debate its outdoors amendment bill on Monday.

Attempts by House Republican leaders to pass a narrowly focused proposal - dedicating 12 cents of the existing sales tax collected on $100 spent - hit numerous bumps through the committee process. At one point the bill included a tax increase, broadened the aim of the funding and proposed separate ballot questions dealing with gay marriage and transportation money. Last week a committee returned the bill to its original form.

In a Friday interview, Sviggum predicted a lengthy, contentious debate on the House floor as some lawmakers will try to amend the bill to resemble the Senate plan, others fight to keep it the way it is and still others try to kill it because they oppose the concept of constitutionally dedicated funding.

"It's going to get ugly," Sviggum said of the floor debate. "I'm going to do everything I can to keep (the bill) clean."

Tom House, of the Evansville-based Pioneer Heritage Conservation Trust, said outdoors groups have worked successfully to protect shallow lakes and could do more with additional dollars.

House, a hunter and occasional fisherman, said he feels a sense of urgency to get a constitutional amendment approved in 2006. He fears what could happen without new money for habitat protection.

"People are still going to hunt but it's going to definitely go a step backwards," he said. "It's going to hurt."

Dedicated funding would accelerate programs geared at restoring prairie wetlands, Jon Schneider, an Alexandria-based manager for Ducks Unlimited conservation programs. An estimated 80 percent of the state's prairie wetlands are now gone, he said.


"It's going to take time and money to overcome those problems," Schneider said.

(Scott Wente helps cover the Legislature for Forum Communications. Co.)

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