Habitat Protection/Restoration in Dakota County-Phase V
$1,190,000 in the second year is to the commissioner of natural resources for a contract with Dakota County to acquire permanent conservation easements and land in fee and to restore and enhance habitats in rivers and lake watersheds in Dakota County. Up to $15,000 to Dakota County is for establishing a monitoring and enforcement fund as approved in the accomplishment plan and subject to Minnesota Statutes, section 97A.056, subdivision 17. Lands acquired or lands with easements acquired with this appropriation may not be used for emergency haying and grazing in response to federal or state disaster declarations. Conservation grazing under a management plan that is already being implemented may continue. A list of proposed land acquisitions and restorations and enhancements must be provided as part of the required accomplishment plan.
A network of natural land and riparian habitats will connect corridors for wildlife and species in greatest conservation need - This is a long-term goal that depends on protection, restoration and enhancement of contiguous habitat. Although the number of acres is an important metric, protecting and managing priority lands has to be focused and strategic. The Vermillion River Corridor Plan provides that foundation for this public and private investment. The amount and type of protected and managed land will be compiled and evaluated annually for quantifying wildlife, water quality and outdoor recreational improvements and use. .Game lakes are significant contributors of waterfowl, due to efforts to protect uplands adjacent to game lakes - Population of young and adult waterfowl will be monitored annually on the lake located within the Vermillion Highlands complex..Core areas protected with highly biologically diverse wetlands and plant communities, including native prairie, Big Woods, and oak savanna - Most of the high quality habitat of the Vermillion Highlands complex is now protected, but there are still key areas to protect. The challenge is to improve and diversify the plant commumities to create a more diverse and resilient landscape. Species diversity will be monitored to guide management activities. Most of the land along the Vermillion River will remain privately owned, but it is critical to create additional public access to the river and to protect and manage these lands. .
This project will protect 135 acres through conservation easement acquisition, restore 178 acres and enhance 157 acres of wildlife habitat within the Vermillion River Focus Area in central Dakota County.
The long history of agricultural and urban/suburban development in Dakota County has resulted in the significant loss, degradation and fragmentation of our natural systems to where less than three percent of the pre-settlement plant communities remain. In response, the County developed the Farmland and Natural Areas Program (FNAP) in 2003. This program, which used best available technology, collaborative planning and partnerships and focused on multiple benefits, led to the successful passage of a $20 million bond referendum.
Over the past ten years, a total of 123 projects have been completed or are in varying stages of completion that have/will protect over 11,000 acres with a market value of nearly $80 million. The program has greatly increased the political support and capacity within the County and has greatly increased County credibility among landowners and partners, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Soil and Water Conservation District, Vermillion River Watershed Joint Powers Organization, Cannon River Watershed Partners, Friends of the Mississippi River, Trout Unlimited, and Pheasants Forever.
II. Vermillion River Corridor Plan
FNAP subsequently inspired development of the Vermillion River Corridor Plan, funded with ENRTF, which used a comprehensive approach to protecting and improving wildlife habitat and water quality while increasing opportunities for recreation along a diverse, multi- jurisdictional corridor. Over 220 people participated in the planning process and these efforts reduced property rights issues and led to widespread support for riparian conservation easements that can accomplish multiple public benefits, while compensating private landowners.
Projects are evaluated based on established criteria, including habitat quality and size; reducing non-point pollution; improving stream channel, floodplain and wetland functions; length of shoreline; proximity to other protected land; landowner commitment to stewardship; cost and leveraged funds; and improving recreational opportunities. Easements do not require public access, but projects including public access receive higher scores. Easements do not preclude providing public trails at a future date and reflect the principle of being able to adapt to future changes in demographics and local land use. A technical staff team reviews and ranks projects, then forwards recommendations to the County Board for approval.
Through this project the County will acquire riparian conservation easements on approximately 125 acres along the Vermillion River to improve wildlife habitat and water quality and acquire approximately 10 acres in fee title to provide public access to the Vermillion River.
III. Determining the Value of Riparian Conservation Easements
Easement values for projects in cities or exceeding $50,000 are based upon an independent, fair market appraisal. For other projects, due to the lack of comparable sales for riparian easements in the metro region and to increase program efficiency, a formula based on rural agricultural tax assessed value and adjusted according to regulatory conditions, floodplain, amount of cultivated land taken out of production, and vegetation types is used to determine the per-acre easement value. Aerial photography, Minnesota Land Cover Classification System data, FEMA floodplain boundaries, and site visits are used to determine the following acreage components of each easement:
- Land with a recent cultivation history between 50 an 150 feet from the shoreline
- Woodlands within and outside of 100-year floodplain
- Grasslands and Wetlands within and outside of 100-year floodplain
The respective acreages are multiplied by the relevant valuation to produce the overall easement value. Payment for public access is based upon $5/foot of shoreline within the easement.
Phase I Environmental Assessments are completed for all projects and all solid waste has to be removed as a condition of participation. The County surveys the easements and the resulting information is used for legal documents and establishing boundaries. Baseline Property Reports, referenced in the easement deed, are reviewed and signed by the landowner and the County prior to acquisition. All easements require joint development of a Natural Resource Management Plan (NRMP) by the landowner(s) and the County. A Landowner Agreement is then developed between the two parties identifying the priorities, activities, responsibilities, costs, and schedule for restoration/enhancement activities. Easements are monitored annually.
IV. Restoration and Enhancement at Whitetail Woods-Vermillion Highlands
The largest, highest quality natural area within the Vermillion River Corridor is Vermillion Highlands. The 437-acre Whitetail Woods-Vermillion Highlands Habitat Project site is owned by Dakota County and is part of a larger landscape of protected lands encompassing more than 4,000 acres, including the adjacent Vermillion River WMA and AMA and the Vermillion Highlands Research, Recreation and Wildlife Managment Area. This project will restore or enhance the following habitat types at the site:
• Tallgrass Prairie: Restore 141 acres of cropland and degraded meadows to tallgrass prairie to
supplement an ongoing 20-acre prairie restoration. Enhance 10 acres of previously planted areas. A diverse seed mix will be used that includes more than 60 species of grasses, sedges, and forbs.
• Oak Savanna: Restore 37 acres of former savanna for wildlife habitat and erosion control. Diverse oak species (including swamp white oak and northern pin oak), hazelnut, chokeberry, nannyberry, and shade-tolerant grasses and sedges will be planted.
• Conifer Forest: Enhance 30 acres by removing box elder and Siberian elm and planting a mixture of white pine and oaks.
• Upland Hardwood Forest: Enhance 46 acres of degraded forest by planting oak, sugar maple, red maple, basswood, and hickory.
• Lowland Hardwood Forest: Enhance 10 acres by removing invasive species and planting black willows, basswoods and maples.
• Wetlands: Enhance 61 acres by planting dogwood, willows and high-bush cranberry.
• 1.25 miles of lake shoreline within the adjacent oak savanna and wetland will be further enhanced by planting nannyberry and swamp white oak.
This site currently supports populations of Blanding turtle, eagle, sandhill crane, deer, eastern cottontail, wild fur-bearing game (fox, coyote, mink, and beaver), wild turkey, pheasant, wood duck, and other waterfowl. Restoration and enhancement activities will increase the populations of these and many other species, which will augment populations on the adjacent wildlife and aquatic management areas. In addition, the project will result in more diverse populations of non-game species. Baseline populations will be monitored.