by Mark Herwig
When Minnesota landowner David J. Lutz heard about the Reinvest in Minnesota Reserve program in 1990, he jumped at the chance to use it to restore an upland–wetland complex that his great-grandfather drained, plowed under, and farmed in the 1920s.
Two years later, Lutz had plugged two drainage ditches and built a 600-foot-long earthen dam to restore and expand the wetland. To get the job done, he used a $50,000 grant from the RIM Reserve program and some funds from the St. Croix Valley Chapter of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association. Also using RIM Reserve funds, he improved the upland nesting area by adding native grasses and 10,000 winter-cover trees and food shrubs for wildlife.
"It is incredible how it holds wildlife—the turkey, deer, waterfowl," Lutz says. "Last year I saw sandhill cranes using it for the first time. This spring during turkey season I even spotted an otter fishing the wetland, another first."
For more than 25 years, RIM has spawned similar success stories of restored habitat all across Minnesota.
RIM began when Gov. Rudy Perpich created the Citizen's Commission to Promote Hunting and Fishing in 1984. Perpich knew how much hunting and fishing contributed to the state's economy: $1 billion in sales tax in 1984. The state provided $18.5 million for fish-and-wildlife management, and Perpich supported an increase. He believed more of the state's tax benefit contributed by anglers and hunters should be reinvested in Minnesota's natural resources.
The commission—representatives of various nonprofit wildlife conservation organizations—hatched the idea of a RIM program, and in 1986 the Legislature made it law. Today the program has two components: RIM Reserve buys easements from private landowners. RIM Critical Habitat Match equally matches private donations of land or cash to buy and improve habitat.
RIM Reserve funds come mostly from state bonds and Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment dollars. The Legislature and the Board of Water and Soil Resources disburse these reserve funds.
RIM Critical Habitat Match receives funding primarily from sales of the state's critical habitat license plates. Dollars also come from bonding and the Legislature's appropriations from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which receives 6.6 cents per dollar of state lottery proceeds. The Department of Natural Resources distributes habitat matching funds.
Dave Schad, DNR deputy commissioner, said the creation of RIM set Minnesota apart nationally. "When RIM started 25 years ago, things were really bleak for wildlife in Minnesota's agricultural areas. It was really a crisis for farmland wildlife," he said. "But with RIM, the federal Conservation Reserve Program, and other conservation programs, we were able to get a lot of grass and wetlands back on the land. The agricultural landscape looks a lot different now."
Since 1986, RIM has purchased more than 5,200 conservation easements on more than 230,000 acres. The easements forever protect clean water and wildlife habitat on those private lands.
For now, RIM's future looks bright, with strong funding provided by the Legislature, as well as legacy amendment dollars and matching funds from various federal conservation programs. RIM received $53 million in 2011, a record for RIM.
"Yet demand from landowners to participate in RIM Reserve far outstrips available funds by 2- and 3-to-1," said Tim Fredbo, easement specialist with the Board of Water and Soil Resources.
Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation, gives a lot of the credit for RIM's success to BWSR and the working relationships that local Soil and Water Conservation District employees form with farmers and landowners.
"BWSR and the SWCDs have a good reputation with the public," says Botzek. "SWCD trucks are one of the few government vehicles that could pull into a farmer's driveway and the driver would get invited in for coffee. BWSR spends a lot of time with landowners and thoroughly plans a project before moving ahead."
Perhaps the late Joe Alexander, DNR commissioner from 1978 to 1991, said it best when he summed up the RIM program's spirit: "What a breakthrough! [RIM] gives those of us who have enjoyed the past bounty of Minnesota's natural resources an opportunity to put something back."
Lutz expresses gratitude for the opportunity to restore his land that also sustained his family: "I look out over the RIM project and am thankful the deer, ducks, pheasants, turkey, cranes, otters, and other wild creatures once again call it home." And he notes a critical aspect of RIM: "Because the RIM easement is perpetual, or forever, it can never be farmed again or a permanent structure put on it. I feel, as a son of a farmer, I'm leaving behind a legacy—that I put back more than I ever took away from the land."