The LCCMR was back at the capital last week, focusing on wrapping up a few items before the committee breaks until September when they begin reviewing RFPs submitted for 2008 funding. And it didn’t take long for the stir surrounding mining rights on DNR lands that have received funding under the state’s Forest Legacy Act to kick up some dust.
Bill Becker, from the DNR’s Office of Budget and Finance Services, explained to the committee that prohibition of mining on some lands effectively moves the easements of some lands to Southeast Minnesota, where there are no mineral mining rights issues.
Reviewing the intent of the Forest Legacy Act, a federal program the state entered in 2000, there exists language that defines the purpose of the program and language that identifies uses of the land.
In part, the purpose is to not only identify and protect forest lands but to also address “working forests” – those lands that have commodity outputs such as minerals and other lands without any commodity value. This allows for the continuation of such traditional forest benefits as timber production, public use, open space, wildlife habit preservation and, what has the committee up in arms, “restricted mineral exploration and mining.”
The issue of mining rights on these lands has grabbed the LCCMR’s attention the past few months. Many members feel there is no standard in place to address mining rights, and even more troubling, who actually benefits from any monetary returns from such use of the land.
Rep. Jean Wagenius said she is troubled by the fact that there continue to be no standards in place or transparency of work involved regarding protected land. “How many other groups have profited from easement funding?” Wagenius wondered when it was revealed that outside, private companies may also be involved in the disbursement of funding received.
Becker defended the DNR’s position, stating that the organization has “followed the letter of the law.”
Wagenius stood firm, stating that she “fundamentally disagreed” with Becker and that she wants an accounting of land cost, administration costs, including any costs paid to private groups for such work as surveying. Such costs involved in lands receiving LCCMR funding are “the taxpayers right to know,” she said.
Member John Herman stated that he thinks there needs to be more criteria for the LCCMR to examine. Citing a need for better public access to information, Herman also stated a need for “equitable exchange” that would be similar to conservation criteria in place for wetlands.
Co-chair David Hartwell requested to put the topic to rest until a later date. A motion was passed to accept the work plan, but it doesn’t let the DNR move forward until there is more discussion of the mining and land easement issues among LCCMR members.
Other issues the committee addressed included reviewing a point system implemented to assist in weighting funding requests, and how to allocate funding to “emerging issues.” These environmentally significant changes may not have been previously identified but may require immediate attention. Producing a threat to natural habitat or even human health, such emerging issues could include invasive species or disease to wildlife.
LCCMR Director John Velin noted that the committee has attempted to address this issue, stating that funds would be generally added to a new project that has urgent need. The LCCMR would need to initiate such work and then send its recommendations to Governor Pawlenty who would then decide what to do. Velin did warn the committee that if they include a blanket amount of funding available for such issues, it could be akin “to throwing fish to the sled dogs.” Members agreed that structures need to be in place to prevent a frenzied grab for funding dollars by organizations that may have been denied funding for other requested projects.
Prior to last week, the committee traveled to such outstate areas as Prairie Horizon Farm, Sibley State Park and Liittle Kandiyohi Lake, getting a first-hand, up close look at prairie biodiversity, shallow lake ecology and natural trail restoration.
Information on RFPs for 2008 funding are now posted on the LCCMR‘s site as well as the extensive Statewide Conservation and Preservation Plan.