The Minnesota legislature and Gov. Tim Walz didn’t get a whole lot done this session outside of declaring statewide emergencies and talking about COVID-19 and thus the 2020 session ended with a giant thud.
There is talk of a special session in mid-June to get the ball rolling again on the state’s proposed bonding bill but that’s not the only item that needs discussion — some important outdoors related bills didn’t make it through the gauntlet.
One of those is the environmental policy bill, that despite a furious last-minute charge, didn’t make it to the finish line.
Walz and the Republican-controlled Senate were unable to come to an agreement on the bill authored by Sen. Bill Ingebrigsten (R-Alexandria) which included $62 million for the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources projects (LCCMR).
The LCCMR makes recommendations for projects and utilizes funds primarily from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (ENRTF). In total, the LCCMR had tentatively selected about 77 projects totaling $61,387,000 for funding from the ENRTF.
Amongst those waiting anxiously to see what happens in June are officials from the Voyageurs Wolf Project (VWP), who were looking for about $575,000 to move into that project into its second phase.
The Voyageurs Wolf Project, which is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota and Voyageurs National Park, was started to address what researchers say is one of the biggest knowledge gaps in wolf ecology – what wolves do in the summer.
According to their website, the goal is to provide a comprehensive understanding of the summer ecology of wolves in the Greater Voyageurs Ecosystem in northern Minnesota.
“Specifically, we want to understand the predation behavior and reproductive ecology of wolves during the summer,” officials there say.
To this point they’ve monitored some pretty interesting developments, including discovering that the wolves there will catch and eat freshwater fish and will eat wild blueberries.
They primarily track the wolves using GPS-collars, which cost about $2,000 each. Those collars reveal the locations of den and rendezvous sites, which is where pups are kept during the summer.
Voyageur researchers say that “by gathering detailed information on both the predation behavior and reproductive ecology of wolves, we are able to connect critical facets of wolf behavior during the summer to important ecological factors, prey populations, and human interactions.”
Their initial research has been described as a breakthrough by some wolf experts, and, according to VWP officials, the group has “an unparalleled opportunity to provide critical information for the successful conservation and management of wolves, their prey, and the southern boreal ecosystem. This work benefits not only Minnesota’s iconic Northwoods, but boreal systems around the globe from North America to Asia.”
But they need money to get there. The project received $293,000 from the ENRTF in 2018 and gets support from other groups including the Sturgeon River Chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.
It’s actually a small miracle this year’s bill got as far as it did as differences among state lawmakers over the use of the $1 billion trust fund to finance wastewater treatment projects almost killed the package earlier in the session.
That debate put a number of projects in jeopardy including the VWP.
The University of Minnesota wildlife biologist running the wolf project, Joseph Bump, wrote a letter to Ingebrigtsen in April expressing his concern for the future of the project should funding not go through, saying, in part, it “will not continue or recover without pending LCCMR support.”
“With LCCMR support we employ college students, hire technicians, rent boats and trucks, will buy a snowmobile, gas and lodging — all within Minnesota and mostly rural Minnesota,” Bump wrote.
For more information see www.voyageurswolfproject.org.
Video Coverage of Meetings
Another outdoors related bill that got attention this session was a measure aimed at requiring video coverage of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
The 12-member council, made up of legislators and citizens appointed by the governor, House and Senate, develops recommendations for specific projects lawmakers should spend the money on.
The money they spend comes from Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, a sales tax reserved in the state constitution that also pays for clean water, parks, trails and arts projects.
The Legacy Amendment was created by voters in 2008 and the increased tax revenue it creates is pumped into five different funds: The Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund; the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund; the Clean Water Fund; the Outdoors Heritage Fund; and the Parks and Trails Fund.
According to news reports, supporters said it would increase transparency in how the influential committee recommends millions in state spending on conservation projects.
The bill also says that video of Outdoor Heritage meetings at the state Capitol must be streamed live and archived on the internet for playback. The council also has to stream video and tape meetings held outside the Capitol “to the extent practicable.”
Campgrounds reopening (sort of) in June
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will reopen its campgrounds at state parks, state forests and recreation areas in a phased approach beginning June 1.
Gov. Tim Walz announced that public and private campgrounds may reopen beginning June 1, if they create a Preparedness Plan and follow state guidelines.
According to the DNR, state parks and recreation areas are like small cities that need to have all of their infrastructure restarted in order to reopen. This includes water, sewer, power, roads, trails and buildings. During the Stay at Home Order, the DNR limited its on-site parks and trails workforce to only those employees most critical to support day-use activities, to help limit the spread of COVID-19 and allow time for critical public health preparations across Minnesota.
According to a DNR news release, the DNR generally plans to open sites as soon as they are ready. Dispersed camping in state forests is already allowed, and we anticipate the following general timeline going forward:
•80 remote sites are expected to be ready by May 29.
•June 1: The DNR anticipates having about 20-30 of its campgrounds within state parks, recreation areas and forest campgrounds ready to open, with limited services. Some lodging options, such as camper cabins and yurts, will also open on June 1. In general, visitors can expect that water systems will be turned on, grounds will be maintained, and vault toilets/porta-toilets will be available. However, some value-added services may not be ready or available at that point, such as showers and contact/ranger stations.
•June 8: The DNR will reopen another 20-30 campgrounds and lodging facilities, the rest of its remote campsites, and many of its contact/ranger stations.
•June 15: The DNR plans to have the rest of the campgrounds open and most areas with full services. The Mary Gibbs Café at Itasca State Park, some nature stores, and ancillary buildings, such as fish cleaning facilities and picnic shelters with reduced capacities, will be reopened where possible