Minnesota is a stunningly diverse state, with grass-covered prairies and fields of crops in the south and west, bluffs and flowing rivers in the east, and gin-clear lakes scattered among thick forests in the north. These landscapes and the resources they sustain benefited when the state's residents came together in November 2008 to approve the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment and ensure that funds would be available for the next quarter-century to preserve and protect the state's natural resources heritage.
More than $2.2 billion has been allocated as a result of the amendment, which increased the state sales tax from 6.5 percent to 6.875 percent beginning July 1, 2009. In the past decade, money from the amendment has been used to restore the grass that makes the prairie shimmer; acquire land and plant vegetative buffers that reduce harmful drainage into waters; conduct prescribed burning and brush removal to benefit iconic moose; teach children and families how to camp, fish, and paddle; build state park cabins that offer a soft entry into camping; purchase land that provides habitat for deer, grouse, and pheasants, and places for hunters to pursue them; measure mercury and other contaminants in fish; and monitor aquifers to ensure the quality of drinking water.
"It's been remarkably successful," says Bob Lessard, a former state senator who in the 1990s began pushing the notion of dedicating funds for natural resources. Lessard, who now works as a special assistant to DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, spent 26 years in the state Legislature, many of them as chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, before retiring in 2002. He considers the amendment's passage a crowning achievement not just for its proponents but for future generations.
"The driving force behind this was we wanted to leave the heritage to our kids," he says. "That was the message we tried to get out—that this is a legacy."
Money generated from the sales tax increase is split four ways, as outlined in the state constitution: 33 percent to the Outdoor Heritage Fund to enhance, restore, and protect wetlands, prairies, forest, and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife; 33 percent to the Clean Water Fund to enhance, restore, and protect water quality in lakes, rivers, and streams and to protect groundwater; 19.75 percent to the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund to support the arts; and 14.25 percent to the Parks and Trails Fund to support parks and trails of regional and statewide significance.
While the Legacy Amendment isn't yet halfway to its endpoint, already it has left a mark in nearly every corner of Minnesota. Here are some of the ways Legacy dollars have been put to use.
Pelican Lake, a 3,800-acre shallow lake in Wright County, has historically been among the most important stopover points in Minnesota for migratory waterfowl. Here, lush vegetation and shallow water offer a buffet of invertebrates for diving ducks such as bluebills and canvasbacks. Spoken of in the same breath as famed waterfowl lakes like Christina, Heron, and Swan, the lake in recent decades has experienced what's become all too common among these sorts of lakes: high water levels and resident fish populations that wipe out vegetation and gobble up the food that's so vital to ducks. In 2001, the lake's water was 6 feet higher than it was in the 1970s, and it was as well known for crappies and sunfish as it was for ducks.
The DNR and partners including Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service teamed up to restore the lake in the early 2000s, and the passage of the Legacy Amendment and the creation of the Outdoor Heritage Fund have allowed for "pretty dramatic work," says Fred Bengtson, DNR area wildlife manager in Sauk Rapids. This includes a water control structure and a pumping station that allow the DNR to manually manage water levels, and the purchase of land around the lake to buffer the effects of drainage and make managing water levels easier.
Look out today over Pelican Lake, and change clearly is afoot. Before winter set in, the water was down 4 feet from the high levels of the last 30 years, and a lake bottom that had been almost completely devoid of aquatic vegetation had a thick layer of it. Waterfowl bobbed on its newly clear water, and duck hunters had arrived to experience what the good old days on the lake may have been like.
"We've started to see a lot more local and migratory duck use, along with improved lake water quality that has dramatically increased aquatic plant and invertebrate density," Bengtson says. "There are more exposed mud flats and shoreline areas. The ducks have really been focusing on the shallow areas where the food is concentrated."
American plains bison historically roamed across Minnesota's prairies, but settlement and slaughter largely caused their extirpation by the early 1880s. In recent years, the DNR and the Minnesota Zoo have reintroduced the animals to Minneopa State Park as part of the Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd. Money from the Parks and Trails Fund (along with the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund) has been vital to the project, which aims to create a population of 500 bison in the state, according to Ed Quinn, natural resource program supervisor for DNR Parks and Trails. There are about 12 bison at the Minnesota Zoo, 100 at Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne, and 15 at Minneopa State Park near Mankato.
Reintroduction at Minneopa began in 2015. The bison now attract thousands of visitors each year as they roam across more than 330 acres of mostly unbroken prairie. Though they weigh a half-ton or more, their massive size belies the fact they're mostly quiet as they move about.
"The more I'm around these animals, the more I realize how intelligent they are," says Scott Kudelka, an interpretive naturalist at Minneopa. "Sometimes, it's just in the way they look at you. It's almost like they're sort of wondering what this is all about. Maybe it's just their curiosity."
And the curiosity goes both ways. Since bison were reintroduced at Minneopa, annual park attendance has increased by nearly 70 percent, Quinn said.
Whitewater State Park Campground
For years, the thought of flash flooding kept Brent Anderson awake on rainy nights. As the manager of Whitewater State Park in southeastern Minnesota, Anderson worried about the people spending the night in the park's campground near the Middle Fork of the Whitewater River. He previously had to evacuate campers from the campground when the water washed over the river's banks. In August 2007, nearly 11 inches of rain fell, forcing the park's evacuation, closing it for eight months, and propelling forward a plan to do away with the popular but flood-prone Gooseberry Glen Campground and move it to higher ground across Highway 74. The new Minneiska Campground is both safer and scenic.
"To sit in the campsite and look around, all you see is the bluffs—just a 360-degree, gorgeous view," Anderson says. When the sun sets behind the bluffs and smoke from campfires curls toward the sky, the campground is mostly quiet, save for the hoots of an owl or the howls of a coyote that remind campers of the wild around them.
The Parks and Trails Fund provided for the new campground, which opened last August. It includes 40 sites with electricity, four non-electric sites for tents only, four year-round camper cabins, and three group camps. The park also has installed a solar array that provides electricity and allows the park to obtain energy credits from the local electric company.
Among the first, and still the largest, projects to receive funding from the Outdoor Heritage Fund was a 188,000-acre easement the DNR acquired on working forestland owned by the Blandin Paper Company. Much of the forested land—155,000 acres—is in Itasca County, with the remainder scattered across Aitkin, Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Koochiching, and St. Louis counties, according to Richard Peterson, DNR forest legacy program coordinator. "There's a very good mix of habitats across the entire property," he says.
The land is primarily aspen forest, though there also are pine, spruce, and hardwoods. Within the easement, which protects the property from development and allows public access in perpetuity, are 60,000 acres of wetlands, more than 130 miles of lake and pond shoreline, 100 miles of streams, and about 30 miles of state-designated trout streams. Black bears, ruffed grouse, songbirds, timber wolves, white-tailed deer, and woodcock are among the forest wildlife that thrive here.
Timber rattlesnakes are largely confined to southeastern Minnesota, where bluff prairies, rocky outcrops, and surrounding forests serve their habitat needs. But over time, brush and exotic species such as buckthorn have overtaken the bluff prairies, pinching rattlesnake habitat and pushing them toward undesirable areas—namely, people's homes and property. In the Root River valley, the DNR has used money from the Outdoor Heritage Fund to restore the bluffs' openness via techniques including goat browsing. Opening up the bluffs encourages the snakes to stay on them, says Jaime Edwards, DNR nongame wildlife specialist.
"We've been able to change their movement patterns and provide them habitat away from people's homes," she says. "In many places, we have reduced snake and human interactions pretty dramatically. Landowners are really happy."
As a result of an initiative that Gov. Mark Dayton began pushing in 2015, vegetated buffers are required around public waters and ditches in Minnesota—an effort aimed primarily at helping clean the state's waters. It took more than two years for Dayton's original proposal to take effect, in part because of the front-end legwork necessary to determine exactly where buffers are necessary. Thanks to money from the Clean Water Fund, the DNR established and will "maintain a statewide map that shows the waters that are subject to buffer requirements," according to Minnesota's Legacy website.
Among the many other ways the DNR has used Clean Water funds is to improve its water-monitoring capabilities and supplement its work on restoring streams and curbing erosion, according to Steve Colvin, DNR deputy director of Ecological and Water Resources.
The Legacy Amendment sunsets at the end of June in 2034, at which time voters will have to choose between reauthorizing it and allowing it to expire. Though Lessard, who travels throughout the state in his role with the DNR, says it's easy to see the changes on the landscape that have resulted from the Legacy Amendment, there's plenty more to do.
"We're well on our way to leaving a legacy for the next generation and their kids," he says. "We're not there yet, but we're on our way."