OUTDOORS: To buy or not to buy, that is the questionWORTHINGTON — The full-court press is on in Minnesota as the different bodies of the legislature try to balance the budgets of various departments of state government.
By: Scott Rall, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — The full-court press is on in Minnesota as the different bodies of the legislature try to balance the budgets of various departments of state government.
This is a daunting task at the very least.
The bills that contain the recommendations of the Lessard/Sams Outdoor heritage Council were to be heard earlier this week. As of this writing, the results are not known.
There were a few interesting issues that were starting to make their way into the news in the days before these bills were to be heard.
But, before we can get into those I need to define and explain a few terms.
In the habitat protection world there are two main actions that can be done to protect existing habitat or create new habitat. They are the purchase or acquisition in fee title or the purchase of a conservation easement.
The first is quite straight forward. A non-profit entity like the Nature Conservancy or a government entity like the state can buy — only from a willing seller — the land on which the habit exists or where habitat can be restored.
The property is owned in fee title. In this case, the non-profit entity would pay the taxes and in the case of the state purchasing it and owning it, a payment in place of taxes is made to the local units of government.
The other method of habitat protection is the purchase of a conservation easement. This is different in the fact that the property stays in private hands and the owner is required to pay the property taxes. The conservation easement restricts what the property owner can do with the land.
In most cases, the conservation easement requires the habitat to be completely protected from any action that could damage it. The easements usually have a management plan to ensure that the habitat is of the highest quality and is maintained at the private land owners’ expense.
Both methods have advantages, but which one is best is a debate without end.
In the acquisition arena some will say that the state owning more land is bad, that the burden of the payment in lieu of taxes is too great a cost to the citizens of the state. The total cost for payment in lieu of taxes is more than $20 million per year. The dollars used to make these payments come from the states’ general fund. Most of the approximately $20 million is for state park and state forest lands. Only about $4 million is for public hunting areas called WMAs. Still, others think that the state already owns too much land. In some counties state ownership is a high percentage, but in southwest Minnesota counties the total state ownership is generally less than three percent.
So why not use conservation easements for everything? You get the habitat protection and have no long term costs in maintenance and taxes.
The answer is ACCESS!
With a conservation easement, the owner controls access. In direct fee title acquisition by the state or in conjunction with a non-profit, the property is almost always open to the public.
Why send millions of dollars on easements when only the property owner can utilize this newly created or restored habitat?
It’s a hard debate and each method should be considered when deciding which one to employ.
One fact that most folks do not know is that conservation easements cost much more that just buying the property. In most cases cost of purchasing a conservation easement is up to 40 percent more than the cost of outright fee title acquisition of that same parcel.
Consider this example. If the acquisition of a 160 acre parcel cost $4,500 per acre the approximate cost to purchase is $720,000. The payment in lieu of taxes is about $5,400 per year based on this cost. The total dollars need to purchase a conservation easement on this same 160 acres would run about $1,008,000.00 This difference in price would allow the state to make the payment in lieu of taxes for 53 years. Now I know that the taxes will go up over time and that there are additional acquisitions costs like appraisals and title opinions but then let’s use 40 years as a conservative figure.
The question now as to what is the best method to protect habitat is more difficult. Easements cost more and have no access, but in 40 years the costs to the state would exceed the cost of the easement.
Both can create new habitat or protect existing habitat.
Another issue that I deal with as a member of Lessard/Sams Outdoor Heritage Council is the fact that folks call and tell me that if the dollars being distributed are coming from a sales tax increase, they want those dollars to be spent where they will have access to the habitat for hunting or other public recreation.
An interesting item that was on the table as I was writing (mentioned in the first paragraph) is that the Minnesota House of Representatives had debated the LCCMR recommendations. The LCCMR (Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources) is the group that recommends how the Minnesota State Lottery money should be spent. They have about $25 million to distribute this go around.
In their recommendations they suggested that about $4 million of the $25 million be spent on strategic land acquisition. The House amended their recommendations and stripped out all of the dollars for acquisition and transferred those dollars to state park building renovations.
It will be interesting to see what if any changes are made to the Lessard/Sams Outdoor Heritage Council recommendations. These included strategic land acquisition along with easements and other great habitat projects. With the actions on the lottery money it will be interesting to see the outcome.
It is not a question of whether to use easements or acquisition. Both are important tools in the habitat arsenal. It is a question of which one to use where, and what is the proper balance between them.
Voters made it abundantly clear that they wanted more and better habitat for game, fish and wildlife. This means acquisition, but it needs to be done strategically and in a balanced form.
I support both forms of habitat protection and would be glad to have a spirited debate with those folks who think it should be all of one and none of the other.
Through the protection, restoration and enhancement of Minnesota’s forest, prairies, wetlands and other game fish and wildlife habit we will all enjoy a better quality of life and live in a state that we can all be very proud of. Using both strategic land acquisition and conservation easements will help get us there.