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Wayne Enger of Perham is a member of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

Lessard-Sams council members forging ahead with work

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The story of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council has just begun and the good news is that it is alive and kicking.

The bad news is that a lot of metro politicians want to add their voice to the 12-member council.

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Perham's Wayne Enger and Ashby's Les Bensch got a taste of Minnesota politics in action earlier this year as they took on the challenge of shaping the future work of their body. The two men were picked to be part of a citizen-legislative council that would decide where 33 percent of Minnesota's new Dedicated Funding Amendment money would be spent. The council looked at nearly 100 wildlife projects and with $69.5 million to distribute, chose 19 of them.

The council started from scratch last December, after the Dedicated Funding Amendment was passed by Minnesota voters in November, and Enger is proud of what they have accomplished.

"We had this ready and set to go by April 1," Enger said. "We had no mission statement; we had no plan, so we got this done basically in about 3 1/2 months. If that isn't being expedient to spend about $70 million dollars -- I mean that's pretty quick."

Their recommendations went to the Minnesota Legislature for passage by the Senate and House. According to Enger, the Senate was OK with the way the council had framed their recommendations but the House was not. They wanted words changed. The result was something different than what the council intended.

"It's not perfect and it's not bad either," Enger said. "When you take a look at what actually got approved in the bill -- a lot of good stuff got approved but the bad part of it is the definition of words and concepts that I don't understand. What happened in the House side, you might say, is that the language got muddied."

In the end, the two branches of government passed a two-year $397 million spending bill which Gov. Pawlenty signed with just one line-item veto.

Beginning July 1, an increase in the state sales tax of three-eighths of 1 percent will pay for what many hope will become a better Minnesota. Since the money is dedicated, by law it has to go into one of three pots. One third of the money raised over the next 25 years will go into outdoor projects. Another third will go into clean water projects. The remaining third will be split between parks and trails projects and the arts.

Bensch has been peeved by the way metro legislators are trying to direct the council's plans. He pointed out that the council has a mandate to spend money only on projects that are open to public use -- and that the state's best hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities are in outstate Minnesota.

"There isn't a helluva lot of public hunting in Anoka, Hennepin and Ramsey County," Bensch quipped.

This fact has not stopped metro legislators from attempting to supercede the LSOHC's authority.

"The problem is that we have metro legislators that are trying to run this, that is the biggest problem," Bensch said. "They're continuing to peck away at us. They are trying to combine the meetings with the LCCMR."

The Legislative-Citizen Commission for Minnesota Resources is a group that derives its funding from the state lottery. While Enger said the LCCMR's mission is quite similar to the Lessard-Sams Council, he agrees with Bensch that the two groups have different goals.

"The LCCMR can spend can spend their money on surveys, studies -- things which are not our mission," Enger said. "We are not looking at studies, we are looking at projects on the ground. I want to see a tree, grass, deer, ducks, wetlands, water -- not something which is on paper."

Bensch insisted he has nothing against the LCCMR but believes the two groups must work separately. He does not like the idea of becoming bogged down in studies. One of the LCCMR's studies is more than 400 pages long and has cost more than $200,000 to produce.

"Right now they are in the process of separating the fly specks from the pepper," said Bensch. "We have to represent the Constitution and the people of the state this is what we have to keep our direction on rather than being swayed by political pressure."

Bensch wants to represent the 1.6 million sportsmen of the state.

"We have got 1.6 million observers out there every day of the year," Bensch said. "It's a very simple observation -- is the fishing population healthy, is the duck population healthy, is the game population healthy, this is our indicating factor. We have the observers that can see and do and make changes."

Bensch is no more interested in spending a lot of money on paper projects than Enger is.

"We have a vision, we know what direction we have to go and we're going to go there," Bensch said. "Some of these people haven't got a fricking clue."

The council's problems are not just with metro legislators eager to show their constituents that they are getting a share of the LSOHC money for the Twin Cities. They are also dealing with people who do not like the Forest Legacy program.

The Forest Legacy program was the largest single project proposed by the LSOHC. The state will purchase a permanent conservation easement on 188,000 acres -- an area approximately six times the size of Itasca, Minnesota's largest state park -- in northeastern Minnesota -- for $36 million. The land will now be open to public hunting and recreational use and safeguarded from future development.

As the council begins preparing its next set of recommendations for the Legislature, it is planning a series of listening sessions in out state Minnesota over the next couple of months to hear the views of outdoor enthusiasts on how they want their money spent.

"The group is not a bureaucratic council where we're sitting here saying we are going to do it our way and that is all there is to it. We are looking for a lot of opinions," Enger said.

Meetings are scheduled June 16 in Alexandria and at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center June 17 in Fergus Falls. Meetings are also set for July 14-15 in Grand Rapids.

The board's next set of recommendations are due by Jan. 15.

For more information regarding the LSOHC's activities go to www.lohc.state.mn.us.

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