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Sales tax dedicated to Minnesota outdoors

June 27, 2009 at 07:18 AM


GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. (AP) - Hunters and hikers have lost access to swaths of the northern Minnesota forest in recent years, but taxpayers are stepping in to keep nearly 300 square miles near the Mississippi headwaters as is: Wooded and open to the public.

The $45 million conservation deal with UPM Blandin Paper is one of the 10 largest such projects in the country, preserving an area the size of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. The project gives the state permanent land rights and ensures public access.

It means no development and no subdividing land thick with aspen, spruce, maples and wildlife, from the ovenbird to the gray wolf. Logging will continue under conditions designed to mimic the forest’s natural life cycle. And people will have access for activities like snowmobiling and fishing the lakes and streams that drain into the Mississippi River.

“That land will forever be forest,” said Michael Kilgore, head of a state council that d ecided the Upper Mississippi Forest Project will get some of the first cash raised when the state sales tax goes up July 1.

The push to preserve is a rare example of new spending in tight times, with conservation in many places losing out as governments slash their budgets. Minnesota voters amended the state constitution last year to pay for outdoor and cultural programs. The tax amounts to 15 cents on a $40 purchase, bringing in an estimated $234 million a year over the next quarter-century.

Minnesota joins Missouri and Alabama in reserving some sales tax cash for natural resources, according to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and Iowa voters will decide whether to do so in November 2010. While many states use excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, special license plates and other programs, those bring in much less than dedicated sales taxes.

In Minnesota, the first two years of sales tax money will go to programs from monitoring che micals in lakes and rivers to fostering the Dakota and Ojibwe languages.

But the largest share of the money for a single project, $36 million, will go to the Upper Mississippi Forest Project. With that and $9 million from two private foundations, the Department of Natural Resources will buy rights known as conservation easements from UPM Blandin Paper to more than 187,000 acres. The deal will be done by late next year.

Blandin, owned by Helsinki-based UPM-Kymmene Corp., is the state’s last major forest products company that hasn’t sold off or leased some or all of its logging grounds. As those lands passed into new hands, public users ranging from berry pickers to snowmobilers were shut out.

The Blandin land consists of large chunks around Grand Rapids and Hibbing and smaller pieces scattered in seven northern counties. It looks wild, although it has been logged before.

South of Grand Rapids, the woods grow to the edges of private dirt roads winding a way from town, lime-green aspen leaves fluttering in the breeze. Birders, grouse hunters and snowmobilers revel here, along with wood ticks and wild turkeys.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime deal,” said Craig Engwall, a regional Natural Resources Department manager.

Preserving forest land has become a state priority in recent years, one that will quicken thanks to the sales tax money. The Department of Natural Resources has identified a million acres of undeveloped forest at risk of being broken up and sold, and has signed or is acquiring conservation rights to 150,000 acres with other funds.

In the Upper Mississippi Forest Project, UPM Blandin will retain ownership of the land - along with the limited logging rights - and keep paying about $900,000 in property taxes each year, said Cheryl Adams, a forest ecologist with the company. She said UPM Blandin manages the land to grow timber, which is worth more than pulp trees and requires a more ecological approach .

Still, State Rep. Rick Hansen noted that the state isn’t getting the rights to wetlands or carbon emissions credits for the land, passing up a potentially valuable part of the deal.

He said UPM-Kymmene could gain from those rights under a national or global plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions, or could drain wetlands elsewhere because it can claim 66,000 acres on the Upper Mississippi land.

Hansen, a Democrat from South St. Paul, also said permanent conservation easements haven’t been tested beyond a few decades, so questions remain about how well they work over generations.

“Companies change hands in this worldwide environment in the blink of an eye,” he said.

Sharon Pond, a spokeswoman for UPM-Kymmene, said the company hasn’t announced any changes for the land. “We will continue to manage it for best practices for forest sustainability,” she said.

UPM Blandin Paper General Manager Joe Maher said the company had looked at working out a deal for conservation easements previously, but it wasn’t feasible until the sales tax money was available.

That it is pleases Mark Johnson, head of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, which pushed hard to pass the constitutional amendment after years of trying.

“Nothing’s free anymore. Nothing probably ever was free,” he said. “And thankfully we’ve got some money to actually pay for these things now.”

Your CommentsComments :: Terms :: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

“Logging will continue under conditions designed to mimic the forest’s natural life cycle. And people will have access for activities like snowmobiling and fishing the lakes and streams that drain into the Mississippi River.”  Sounds like the timber interests, snowmobilers, and fishermen have been taken care of…...but no mention of deer/grouse hunters is there!  I wonder how pleased with this plan that Mark Johnson and the MDHA are after working so hard to get this constitutional amend-ment passed.  Funny that they would mention almost all the other groups that supported this, but didn’t mention hunters, except in the past tense.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/28 at 08:37 AM

Don’t get me wrong, from reading my last post.  I, wholeheartedly, support the concept of trying to find sustainable funding for the conservation of our natural resources.  In fact, that may be the only way of saving what is left of the IDNR, the agency charged with the impossible task of protecting, preserving, and sustaining Illinois’ natural resources and conservation areas.  It seems as though, in tough economic times, or in the case that we elect an idiot for governor, that funding for Illinois’ natural resource management dries up or otherwise, becomes non-existent.  I don’t know how many more years that we can put off not doing the basic management items that are necessary to sustain our unique, wonderful natural areas within the State of Illinois, without a designated funding source for our IDNR.

Many states are establishing or working toward ways to provide sustainable funding for their natural resources and have spent years to get to the point Minnesota is at now. Iowa, currently has plans for a sales tax initiative in 2010, and is on the leading edge of investing in the comprehensive benefits natural resources would provide.  From the States that have taken such an initiative MO, MI, AR, Al and NC, their common message is very clear:

(1) Protection, enhancement, and management of our natural resources are vital to all citizens and the legacy we leave to future generations.

(2) Investments in a State’s natural resources reap great economic benefits.

(3) If we want to expand our State’s workforce and attract visitors to the state, we need to provide outdoor recreation and natural resource amenities that provide opportunities they seek and require, and have the financial ability to support and maintain those investments.

(4) The dedicated tax constitutes irrefutable evidence that citizens want action and recognize the need to save a State’s natural areas and other special places.

(5) Stable funding fosters long term vision and partnerships needed to uphold the promise of a quality environment for all Illinoins.

As most of us know, Missouri has been funding their natural resources with great success for many years, from a portion of their sales taxes. Minnesota has been working for ten years to get funding for their natural resources. Finally, in November 2008, the people “spoke” and their constitutionally protected set-aside in their state’s sales tax initiative succeeded. Illinois is way behind, we don’t have the luxury of waiting ten years to get this accomplished.  We need to act now to propose an amendment to the Illinois Constitution to protect a portion of Illiniois’ state sales tax revenue (1/2 of 1 cent) for natural resources.  We are not proposing to raise taxes - we are simply asking for an opportunity for the people to vote to determine what kind of priorty they give to protecting funding for natural resources.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/29 at 08:47 AM

Prove to me that the political big guns in our state & DNR will keep the money where it belongs, utilize it for the betterment of our programs , and not give in and back programs for the special interest groups that want to control and bend the DNR to their interests, thus leaving the outdoor programs, parks, fish & wildlife and the whitetail herd to suck hind tit. Then and only then would I support adding tax for sustainable IDNR revenue…..The whole picture has soured me to the point I dont trust or put faith in many of the upper heads in control of our IDNR programs and money…...So until then..or should I say , until the IDNR puts our interests and programs first, and the special interest groups last. I have no desire to pledge support…..Creating a sales tax based funding for the IDNR would be a great great thing if all the money raised was GAURANTEED to go towards what it was pledged for….Up to now those promises have hardly ever been kept and we the people are kinda tired of getting burnt…..AM I outta line feeling this way ?

Remember where we are….this is Illinois…..big politics / money / Chicago / HUGE ANTI LOBBYING / high taxes to begin with

Mo, Mi , Ark , Al , NC…..all BIG TIME outdoor recreation, hunting, fishing states…...Those states dont seem to have much political interferance to their outdoor and wildlife programs like we do….They have huge huge political support.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/06 at 01:48 AM

pwgunner,I agree with your post. If this is would indeed be a dedicated tax then why shouldn’t it be guaranteed? There were many groups(60-90) pushing this tax increase and the first year was easy but these groups in the next few years will all be after their piece of the pie.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/06 at 07:25 AM

The only way that this would work, as most of you have already figured out, is that it be enabled by a Constitutional Amendment, otherwise, the legislators would be raiding the funds and using them for purposes other than what they were intended. Most public opinion polls that have been done on support of this bill, show that the only way people will support it, if the funds were dedicated to DNR programs.  There is widespread public support for programs like this in other States, although I’ve never seen the results of a poll in this State.  Minnesota’s vote was almost 2 to 1 in support of the tax set-aside.  There is hope for Illinois, when you consider Minnesota’s population is similar, in that both States have about 50% of their population in one major metropolitan area of the State.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/06 at 07:52 AM

I understand the constitutional admendment part of this. My point was that with so many groups involved not everyone is going to be happy.I believe Mn. Evironmental Partnership was the link I was reading from. When and if Il. brings an admendment up, of course I along with many others will be looking at it. In the meantime I will be watching how things work out in these other states and what problems they may have.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/06 at 04:46 PM

Fellas…...what can we do to force in a constitutional amendment that would lock in our funds to stay on course and help lock out the special interest group voices…..If there is anything that can be done to strengthen our grip then lets get the ball rolling…..Guys and gals , this just could be the post we have been waiting for to put our brains together and chisel out a plan to move forward with and start building a better future…..I truly believe its up to us…..lets keep this one going !!! lets hear it gang !!!!!!...........PW

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/06 at 11:12 PM

I’m sure this has and is being discussed in differant circles,I know it has been discussed among people I know. However given the state of the state at this time and the sentiment seeming to be against tax increases this probably wouldn’t be a good time. Remeber this took a broad coalition of groups to get the support that it did and it will take the same here

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/07 at 11:39 AM

I totally agree with this being a bad time to raise or add more tax…...BUT we should push hard for a constitutional amendment that would lock our IDNR funds in place so as to never be moved or used for anything other than IDNR programs. And in this amendment move to never allow for this money to be used in anyway to benefit any special interest groups…Never , ever !!!....We need language in the law that sends them packing, taking away there pay offs and self rightous intrusion, that infringe on our rights to run our own IDNR business without the interuption of outside interest….this including language against the antihunting / antigun organizations…..If you make it harder or next to impossible for it to be legal to be heard, it makes it much much more costly for them to challenge. They will still challenge but it will hit them where it hurts the most…..If you make it where it becomes an EXTREME high dollar cost to get involved lobbying against the IDNR , then maby after weighing the cost against what they are lobbying for, ( in reference to the farm buerau, insurance companies, etc. ) there might be a change in thought as to is it worth it , or can they afford it…....But then again…..Whos side will the upper heads take…It would be plain to see whos side they would be on if we publicly put proposals of such or simlilar on their plate…We would see in a hurry who is on whos side…....PW

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/07 at 04:01 PM

PW, since this fell off the front page we are probably having a private conversation which doesn’t keep this in the public view. Maybe a post in the forum with the article would help.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/08 at 08:12 AM

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