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Legacy sales tax turns 10

Minnesota's Legacy Amendment sales tax has pumped billions of dollars into environmental, cultural and outdoor projects over the past decade, including $1.5 million into the cleanup of Radio Tower Bay in Duluth. file / News Tribune

As the Potlatch continued to sell off small parcels of its forest land across northern Minnesota, mostly to people to build second homes and cabins, conservation leaders became concerned.

The Potlatch selloff was part of a larger trend of formerly large tracts of undeveloped land, managed for timber and wildlife habitat, being divided into small parcels and sold to private owners. Those new owners generally stop managing their land for timber and almost always put up "No Trespassing" signs.

The benefit to the public, to the state's timber industry and to wildlife when larger, undeveloped and contiguous blocks of managed forest land are preserved are many. But public money to buy those parcels was scarce.

Enter the Outdoor Heritage Fund that's supported by Minnesota taxpayers and tourists every time they shop.

With legislative approval in 2017 the the Outdoor Heritage Fund offered $2.4 million to buy 2,500 acres of Potlatch forest within St. Louis County as part of the so-called Laurentian Forest Project. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, Ruffed Grouse Society and the Conservation Fund worked together with St. Louis County to identify the best Potlatch parcels in the county to buy, to get the most bang for the public buck. Parcels that were next to state, federal or county land got first priority.

So far more than 1,600 acres have been purchased with negotiations continuing for another 600-plus acres in 2019, said Emily Nelson of the Conservation Fund. St. Louis County will own and manage the land.

"This is an important project for wildlife, to stop the fragmentation of our forests, and that's why we picked parcels that were near land the county already managed,'' said Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, noting deed restrictions will keep the land undeveloped forever. "But it's also a good deal for hunters and other people who can now use this land for recreation. It opens up more public opportunity in the outdoors."

Raise my taxes, please

In 2008 Minnesota voters said with a resounding yes that they wanted to tax themselves a little more in order to help pay for a better environment, enhanced outdoor recreation, cleaner water and enhanced arts and cultural heritage opportunities.

By a 56-39 percent margin, voters approved an amendment to the state constitution adding a three-eighths percent sales tax increase — equaling about 4 cents on a $10 purchase. The tax revenue, which started to flow July 1, 2009, is divided 33 percent to the Clean Water Fund; 33 percent to the Outdoor Heritage Fund; 19.75 percent to the Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund; and 14.25 percent to the Parks & Trails Fund.

More than 1.6 million Minnesotans voted yes for the new tax, including a majority in all eight Congressional districts. The tax will remain in effect until 2034 when it sunsets, unless lawmakers put it back on the ballot for voters to approve again.

The vote was remarkable for two reasons. First, Minnesota already had a 6.5 percent sales tax aimed at the state's general spending fund. Second, it came during the height of the worst economic recession since the 1930s. That's how passionately Minnesotans feel about their outdoor and cultural heritage, said Erik Jensen, vice chairman of the Minnesota Backcountry Hunters and Anglers group.

"Minnesota and Missouri are the only states that are adding public land, and that's because their (conservation sales tax revenue) help fund that,'' Jensen said. Missouri as a ⅛ percent sales tax dedicated to conservation.

The list of outdoor acquisitions and improvements is long, Jensen noted, including 40,000 new acres of public Wildlife Management Areas statewide, 13,000 acres of improved moose habitat, new public lake and stream access and hundreds of shoreline and stream restoration projects cross the state, including along the Stewart River near Two Harbors.

"And having the Legacy Amendment money has helped leverage a lot of federal and nonprofit money from groups like Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and the Nature Conservancy,'' Jensen noted.

One example is $1.5 million in Outdoor Heritage Fund state money aimed at the Radio Tower Bay cleanup in the St. Louis River in Duluth. That state investment attracted more than $1.5 million in federal money for the project that removed century-old wood waste to improve fish and wildlife habitat.

Now approaching 10 years of funding, advocates and experts who have seen the "legacy" money spent are trying to remind the public they made the right choice.

The tiny tax has produced staggering sums — $2.6 billion combined so far — with $860 million to the Clean Water Fund, $844 million to the Outdoor Heritage Fund, $500 million to the Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund, and $360 million to the Parks & Trails Fund.

In St. Louis County alone there have been more than 2,160 projects (like the Laurentian Forest Project) that have received money thanks to the Legacy Amendment, from education exhibits at the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth to local artist profiles on public television.

It's not just the Outdoor Heritage Fund that helps the outdoors. The Clean Water Fund has pumped millions into effort to protect lakes, streams and groundwater, including a $1.9 million into a sewage collection system for the Caribou Lake area outside Duluth where septic systems were failing and damaging waterways. Clean Water Fund money also goes to study why fish continue to be contaminated with mercury and other pollutants.

"It's been an amazing resource and something really unique to Minnesota. So far it's gone extremely well,'' said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. "The public has been very supportive of this all apong. We did some polling last year that showed overwhelming support still; over 75 percent. But we need to keep reminding people there's still more need out there that there still isn't enough money to fund every project that's deserving... And we need to keep reminding the decision makers out there. Most of the legislators who are in today weren't in office 10 years ago when this passed."

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, tasked with making recommendations to the Legislature on which projects should be funded from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, said lawmakers have received a list of $125.5 million in projects to approve this year, an all time high as consumers spend more and the sales tax continues to pour in.

Still, Johnson noted, there are between $2.50 and $3 in requests for every dollar available.

What the funds are for

The Outdoor Heritage Fund supports restoration, protection, and enhancement of wetlands, prairies, forests, and habitat projects for the benefit of fish, game, and wildlife. The fund may be used to prevent forest fragmentation, encourage forest consolidation, and expand restored native prairie.

The Clean Water Fund was designated to protect, enhance, and restore water quality in lakes, rivers, and streams and to protect groundwater from degradation. At least 5 percent of these expenditures must be designated to protecting drinking water sources.

The Parks & Trails Fund supports parks and trails of regional or statewide significance; funds are divided by statute between the state park, metro park, and greater Minnesota park systems. Nonprofits do not receive Parks and Trails funds.

The Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund is designated to support arts, arts education, and arts access, and to preserve Minnesota's history and cultural heritage.