Wetland Habitat Protection Program – Phase 2
$1,629,000 the second year is to the commissioner of natural resources for an agreement with Minnesota Land Trust to acquire permanent conservation easements in high-priority wetland habitat complexes in the prairie and forest/prairie transition regions. Of this amount, up to $180,000 is to establish a monitoring and enforcement fund, as approved in the accomplishment plan and subject to Minnesota Statutes, section 97A.056, subdivision 17. A list of proposed easement acquisitions must be provided as part of the final report.
Protected, restored, and enhanced nesting and migratory habitat for waterfowl, upland birds, and species of greatest conservation need - The primary evaluation method will be the quality and quantity of habitat that is protected. Through our annual monitoring we will be able to assess the quality of the habitat and determine if there are any threats or violations to the easement. In addition, through the habitat management plans, we will be working with landowners to maintain and/or improve the species diversity on the properties. Overall, we will be evaluating how the protection of an individual parcel contributes to a larger habitat matrix. .Protected, restored, and enhanced shallow lakes and wetlands - The primary evaluation method will be the quality and quantity of habitat that is protected. Through our annual monitoring we will be able to assess the quality of the habitat and determine if there are any threats or violations to the easement. In addition, through the habitat management plans, we will be working with landowners to maintain and/or improve the species diversity on the properties. Overall, we will be evaluating how the protection of an individual parcel contributes to a larger habitat matrix. .
Protect 750 acres of high priority wetland habitat complexes in Minnesota’s Prairie/Forest-Prairie areas by securing permanent conservation easements within scientifically prioritized complexes using an innovative project ranking and payment system to maximize conservation benefit and financial leverage.
Of all of Minnesota’s wildlife habitat types, wetlands and shallow lakes provide the essential backbone for the survival of waterfowl and other important wildlife species. In fact, more than 50% of the amphibians and birds listed in Minnesota’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy as species in greatest conservation need (SGCN) use wetlands during their life cycle. Most of the plans developed to protect Minnesota’s wildlife—including Minnesota’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, the Statewide Conservation and Preservation Plan, and the Long Range Duck Recovery Plan—cite the protection and restoration of the state’s remaining wetlands as one of the top priorities to achieve the State’s conservation goals. Moreover, these plans cite the use of conservation easements on private lands as one of the primary strategies to protect important wetland and shallow lake habitat.
This project encompasses three of Minnesota’s Ecological Classification System subsections: the Hardwood Hills, Red River Prairie and Minnesota River Prairie. Before European settlement, the predominant land cover in the Minnesota River and Red River Prairie subsections was tallgrass prairie and wetlands. Today, row-crop agriculture is the primary land use, and the ditching and draining of small wetlands is a concern for wildlife habitat and water quality. Within these subsections, 116 SGCN and 83 SGCN are known or predicted to occur, respectively. Shallow lakes and wetlands both are identified as “key habitats” in Minnesota’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy, with 58 SGCN using those habitats. The Hardwood Hills subsection originally was characterized by maple-basswood forest interspersed with oak savanna, oak forest and tall grass prairie. The subsection also contains numerous lakes, wetlands, and prairie potholes. Similar to the Minnesota River Prairie subsection, the predominant land use today is agriculture, and wetland loss is a primary conservation concern. Eighty-five SGCN are known or predicted to occur within this subsection. And, as with the Minnesota River Prairie subsection, shallow lakes and wetlands are identified as “key habitats” within the Hardwood Hills, with 55 SGCN using those habitats.
In this Phase 2 of our successful Wetlands Habitat Protection Program, the Land Trust proposes to complete 8-10 new conservation easements protecting a minimum of 750 acres of important wetland and associated habitat within its Edge of the Prairie Critical Landscape. This landscape, which extends from Meeker County northwest to Becker County, is located at the edge of the once vast prairies of western Minnesota as they transition to the woods and forests that dominate the eastern portion of the State. The prairie pothole lakes and associated wetlands within this landscape form the backbone of one of the continent’s most important flyways for migratory waterfowl.
Phase 2 of this program will build on the accomplishments of the Land Trust’s very successful first round of the Wetland Habitat Protection Program. In Phase I, the Land Trust is on track to significantly exceed our acreage deliverables. At the time of drafting this proposal, Phase 1 of the Wetland Habitat Protection Program has already protected approximately 300 acres of significant wetland complexes with conservation easements, and eight other easement projects are in various stages of completion. Phase I also saw the successful implementation of the reverse-bid system for easement ranking and payment, thereby advancing a new model for project selection and easement valuation.
MLT will continue to implement this criteria-based ranking system and market approach for purchasing conservation easements, which was originally developed through our work with St. John’s University in the Avon Hills. Under this system, potential parcels for easement purchase are prioritized based on their value to wetland protection, proximity to other protected parcels, MCBS data and other appropriate criteria while allowing targeted landowners to bid their desired price to protect their property with an easement. Those properties with the best ratio of environmental benefits to easement cost become the highest priority for acquisition. Several landowners fully donated easements in Phase I with several others accepting approximately 50% of the easement's value (thereby leveraging the other 50%). The attached project list includes parcels where we have had interested landowners in the past. The list will be revised as we initiate this round of bidding and will be continually evaluated to ensure the selection of high-quality projects.
Although the Land Trust has been active in this landscape for more than 15 years, we now have a unique window of time to deepen our commitment and conservation impact to protect important wetland complexes. With an aging landowner population and organizational momentum, the time is now to implement a robust wetland protection and restoration program for this region. To focus our work, we have completed an initial analysis to identify important wetland complexes in this landscape based on the intersection of high-quality habitat, existing protected areas and restorable agricultural lands. These complexes include a mosaic of wetland, prairie/grassland, and forest habitats, as well as agricultural land. Protection of these complexes will produce the following outcomes: 1) nesting and migratory habitat for waterfowl, upland birds, and species in greatest conservation need; 2) improved water quality; 3) increased participation of private landowners in habitat projects; and 4) enhancement of prior public investment in wetland protection and restoration.
Proposed activities under this grant include:
1) contacting and negotiating with interested landowners;
2) drafting and completing perpetual conservation easements;
3) documenting property conditions and drafting habitat management plans as appropriate;
4) dedicating funds for the perpetual monitoring and enforcement of those easements.
As a nationally-accredited land trust, the Minnesota Land Trust works only with conservation easements that are perpetual. These easements prohibit land uses or development that negatively affect important habitat and other conservation values. These easements are monitored annually and enforced as necessary under the Land Trust’s comprehensive conservation easement stewardship program.
As with Phase I, we anticipate working in partnership with appropriate public agencies, non-profit organizations and other stakeholders, including BWSR, Ducks Unlimited, and local counties and Soil and Water Conservation Districts to ensure this program meets multi-agency conservation goals.