A coalition of state agencies and citizen groups earlier this week called for a new approach to what they said is one of the most critical issues facing Minnesotans: a growing threat to the state's natural environment.
In a series of four press conferences around the state, officials from state natural resource and environmental agencies explained the need for long-term stable funding if Minnesota is to maintain its outdoors heritage and quality of life. They were joined by representatives of a range of interest groups representing hunters, anglers, park users, lake associations, conservationists, the forest products industry and others.
Dubbed "Half A Cent For Nature," the proposal calls for dedicating a half-cent of the sales tax on each dollar spent to a new fund that would replace the general fund for the DNR, MPCA, Board of Water and Soil Resources, Office of Environmental Assistance and the Metropolitan Council's park system. The proposal would have to be approved by voters as a constitutional amendment.
DNR Commissioner Allen Garber said state agencies rightfully can point to numerous success stories in taking care of Minnesota's environment. But growing development pressures and increasing recreational demands are impacting resources as never before. Further cutbacks in stewardship efforts would pose dire and lasting consequences for Minnesota's natural heritage, Garber said.
"For as long as most of us can remember," Deputy Commissioner Steve Morse said, "whenever times get tough natural resources and the environment are among the first things cut, not because they're unimportant but because the impacts don't show up right away. Because Minnesota is fortunate to have a wealth of natural resources, we've often been able to get by with that. Now we're at the point where we have to be more serious about taking care of what we have or face the reality of losing it."
According to a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study, hunting, angling and wildlife watching add up to a $3.5 billion industry in Minnesota. Yet natural resources and the environment account for less than two percent of the state budget, Morse said. Providing a stable funding source to take care of the natural resources that support these industries and others is not only good stewardship buty a wise investment, he said.
In addition to enhancing efforts to protect habitat and better manage state forests, parks and other lands, the Half-Cent For Nature proposal would help state agencies better address what Minnesotans cite as one of their top concerns: protection of the state's water resources.
"Minnesotans have consistently told us that they want clean and healthy lakes, rivers and streams," MPCA Commissioner Karen Studders said. "If we want to continue touting ourselves as the land of 10,000 lakes we need stable funding to take better care of our water resources in the face of the growing pressure."
Agencies would be able to expand outreach to local government, where many of the decisions affecting water quality are made, said Ron Harnack, executive director of BWSR. They also would be able to better coordinate efforts to work with private landowners.
"Privately owned farmland and forestland cover more than three-fourths of the state," Harnack said. "Enhancing conservation efforts on these working lands will produce dramatic benefits for water quality, air quality, and fish and wildlife habitat, while maintaining our economic vitality and quality of life."
Representatives of interest groups participating in the press conferences offered broad support for the initiative.
"Nature provides us with a host of benefits that few states can rival," Garber added. "Giving half a cent back to nature seems a small price if we want to preserve these benefits for ourselves and for future generations."
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