Minnesota Prairie Recovery Project
$3,653,000 in fiscal year 2011 is to the commissioner of natural resources for an agreement with The Nature Conservancy for a pilot project to acquire interests in land and restore and enhance prairie and prairie/wetland habitat in the prairie regions of western and southwestern Minnesota. The Nature Conservancy may acquire land in fee or through permanent conservation easements. A list of proposed fee title and permanent conservation easements, and a list of proposed restorations and enhancements, must be provided as part of the required accomplishment plan. All restorations must comply with subdivision 9, paragraph (b). The commissioner of natural resources must agree in writing to each acquisition of interest in land, restoration project, and enhancement project. The accomplishment plan must include an easement stewardship plan.
Protect in Fee w/o PILT: 341 acres of wetlands, 1342 acres of prairies; Restore 168 acres of prairies; Enhance 20,282 acres of prairies.
TNC and RIM credits
This program initiated strategies toward a 15-year goal to provide protection to the remaining 90,000 acres of native prairie/savanna, a 20-year goal to restore and protect an additional 500,000 acres of diverse grasslands/savannas, and a 10-year goal to increase management capacity to annually manage 300,000 acres of grassland and savannas per year. This proposal took the first steps to achieve these goals by initiating a comprehensive, coordinated and collaborative prairie conservation initiative. Annual investments by the LSOHC will be required to realize these ultimate outcomes.
Results from this initial phase include: protection of 1,683 acres of native prairie, savanna, and other grasslands; restoration of 168 acres of diverse, local ecotype grassland; enhancement of 20,282 acres of grassland/savanna by prescribed fire, invasive species removal, and/or conservation grazing; and development of a new conservation model in 2 parts of the state that serve as a platform for accelerated conservation across Minnesota.
Design and Scope of Work
1. Problems to be addressed: the conservation problems facing Minnesota’s prairies, prairie potholes, grasslands and savannas are many, and include:
a. Continued losses of native and restored grasslands due to economic pressures.
b. Degradation of existing public grasslands and wetlands due to encroachment by woody vegetation and other invasive species that reduces their values to wildlife and people.
c. Inadequate public access for hunting and fishing in agricultural parts of the state.
d. Potential loss of local taxes and local incomes when land is acquired by public entities.
e. Long-term state obligations for management of public lands and payment-in-lieu-of-taxes creates a burden for state budget.
f. Programmatic and staff limitations that reduce efficiencies in implementing diverse conservation programs across multiple partners.
2. Scope of work: with the appropriated funding, and with other funds leveraged by this money and brought by other partners, the following actions and outcomes were realized.
• The “Prairie Recovery Project Partnership” was initiated within the Glacial Lakes and Tallgrass Aspen Parkland's landscapes. Two prairie biologists were hired and co-located in partner offices to facilitate and oversee enhancement work on publicly owned grasslands. Dedicated protection staff were employed to identify priority parcels for permanent protection, conduct outreach with landowners, and bring real estate transactions to fruition. A project coordinator oversaw implementation of the above activities, and provided administrative support for budget monitoring and reporting.
• Original goals for the project included 1,000 acres protected, 250 acres restored and 8,000 acres enhanced. We vastly exceeded our protection and enhancement goals with 1,683 acres permanently protected (including 1,026 acres native prairie) and 20,282 acres of permanently protected grasslands enhanced. Protected lands are held by The Nature Conservancy and are open to public hunting and fishing as provided in the Constitution. Management techniques on grassland enhancement projects included prescribed fire, conservation grazing and/or haying, removal of woody vegetation, and control of exotic invasive species. This work was accomplished through contracts with private vendors and through use of seasonal crews employed by the Conservancy. We accomplished 67% of our restoration goals through the restoration of 168 acres former cropland and degraded grassland to diverse native species.
• A separate restricted internal fund was established by The Nature Conservancy to hold income generated from OHF funded acquisitions. Income generated by agricultural leases (grazing, haying and/or cropping), earned interest, public contributions and donations are held in this account and are used to pay for property taxes and ongoing management costs. This model was originally devised to test the principle of utilizing extractive practices (ie haying and grazing, native seed production) as a method for offsetting land holding and management costs. Through the project we have found that revenues generated lag behind holding costs, thereby necessitating private contributions on the part of the Conservancy for making property tax payments. And while the model does not function as effectively as we had originally hoped, economic activities do help at least partially offset ownership costs and can serve as valuable tools for implementing needed management.
• On-the-ground staff provided by this grant convened and are leading coordination and implementation of local technical teams called for in the MN Prairie Conservation Plan; actively identified protection, restoration and enhancement needs and opportunities within the focus areas; worked with DNR and FWS staff to delineate conservation projects on public lands; coordinated deployment of contract and staff resources to protected conservation lands; worked with private landowners to coordinate agricultural activities/leases on appropriate protected conservation lands (e.g., haying, grazing, cropping); educated lessees on appropriate conservation grazing/haying practices; supervised management of lands acquired above; planned and conducted prescribed burns; and secured other funding for conservation practices, including through the MN DNR's Working Lands Initiative.
• Contracts were let with Conservation Corps of Minnesota and private vendors to conduct enhancement activities on new and existing protected conservation lands, greatly expanding current capacity. These activities greatly improved the habitat value of public lands that were not receiving adequate management treatment, while simultaneously providing jobs for MCC and local businesses. Activities included removal of undesirable woody vegetation, identification and treatment of invasive species infestations, removal of abandoned fences and/or other structures, and related restoration/enhancement activities.
3. How priorities were set: prioritization and prioritization criteria varied with the conservation tactic being employed (i.e., protection, restoration, enhancement). Focus areas were selected where there was overlap with Core and Corridor landscapes as defined through the MN Prairie Conservation Plan and Conservancy priority areas. Because this is a collaborative effort involving multiple partners, tactical priorities and criteria were established at both the state and local level by the respective Local Technical Teams and local agency personnel. Criteria for each of these tactics included:
a. Protection: location/proximity to other habitats, location/proximity to other protected lands, presence of rare/endangered species, imminence of conversion, ability to support grazing, size, cost, and likelihood for leveraged funding.
b. Restoration: feasibility/likelihood of success, location, cost, availability of seed, and availability of restoration technical assistance.
c. Enhancement: urgency/time since last enhancement, feasibility of success, accessibility, availability of enhancement technical assistance, cost, proximity to other habitats and partnership benefits.
4. Urgency and opportunity of this proposal: about 1% of Minnesota’s original native prairie still remains (about 200,000 acres of an original 1.8 million), and the remnants are still being destroyed and degraded today. Less than half is currently protected from conversion, and management capacity is unable to address needs. Additionally, more than 90% of the original prairie pothole wetlands in the western part of the state have also been lost. These losses threaten the viability of Minnesota’s prairie/wetland wildlife and recreational opportunities that depend upon them. Further, huge strides that have been made in supplementing habitat with the Conservation Reserve Program continue to be in imminent danger of being lost as contracts expire. Conservationists have a narrow window of opportunity to protect remaining native grasslands, wetlands and other habitats, restore and protect supplemental grasslands and wetlands, and accelerate enhancement efforts to ensure these habitats are providing optimal value to animals and people. This proposal accelerates an initiative begun last year, and expands efforts into 2 new focus areas where maximum benefits can be realized.
5. Stakeholder involvement and/or opposition: We have worked very closely with conservation interests in developing this initiative and will continue to collaborate with numerous partners.