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Inside the Outdoors: Foes of dedicated conservation funding are already laying plans

On election night in November of 2008, those who fish, hunt and value the out-of-doors had reason to rejoice. The long-sought goal of a constitutional amendment to fund conservation efforts had been approved by Minnesota voters. This constitutional amendment — officially called the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment — had to be approved by voters because it added 3/8 of one percent to the Minnesota state sales tax. Those funds were designated to be used for such things as improving fish and wildlife habitat, acquiring easements for public access to private land for recreation, state park projects, state trail development and similar spending priorities. And, as it turned out, funding the arts in Minnesota.

In what some considered an unlikely alliance, anglers, hunters and supporters of the fine arts had joined forces to provide the needed political muscle to get the dedicated funding question on the ballot in that presidential election year. At the time, my daughter was working for a Twin City arts nonprofit, and I admit to having been surprised by the information campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts that arts organizations like hers were engaged in. Could lovers of Mozart and muskies really find common ground? Apparently so.

The effort to get the amendment on the ballot had taken the better part of a decade, and several rallies of many camouflage and orange-garbed sportsmen at the Capitol to impress lawmakers enough to force the question onto the ballot. Late in the game, the alliance between sportsmen and arts boosters added some cushion to the margin who voted "yes." When the votes were counted, 56 percent were in favor, 39 percent against.

The model for this amendment was the State of Missouri, which for decades had used a similar dedicated fund to pay for conservation priorities. Missouri, like Minnesota, has an economy in which tourism plays a vital role. A big part of that tourism is related to angling, hunting, camping, state park visits, water sports and other dimensions of outdoor recreation. These depend on public lands, strong wildlife populations, healthy ecosystems, clean water and the like. Because the citizenry as a whole benefit from a healthy state economy, the logic of having everyone pay a small share of the cost via an additional sale tax seemed sound.

Opponents of a dedicated conservation fund argued that natural resources should not be treated any differently than roads and bridges, law enforcement, social services and other things whose funding is debated and voted upon in our annual legislative sessions. The difference, some would counter, is that it is far more costly — sometimes impossible — to reverse environmental neglect. Furthermore, some priorities are by their very nature long-term; managing a fish population, or maintaining the habitat diversity that benefits deer and grouse, for instance. Apparently Minnesota voters agreed, or they would not have voted so emphatically for dedicated conservation funding.

From somewhere back in a high school civics class I remember the motto "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." It is etched in stone beneath a statue at the entrance to the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. Apparently vigilance is also the price of progress and accomplishments in conservation and stewardship of our natural resources.

Although the vote in 2008 was emphatically in support of dedicated natural resource funding, the constitutional amendment that created it has an expiration date of 25 years. As an untried concept in Minnesota, it was not made permanent. The constitutional amendment became effective in 2009, and the sales tax-generated funding will expire in 2034. Voters will have to go to the polls again to declare whether they consider it sufficiently successful and valuable to extend it.

Those who'd like to put an end to dedicated conservation funding are not waiting until the last minute to organize their opposition. As has been reported in other media, when state political parties held their annual convention the first weekend of June, "Repeal of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment" was there in black and white in Section 8 of the Minnesota Republican party's platform of declared political goals.

It's highly probable that many who self-identify as Republicans would not want to see the end of dedicated funding for management and enhancement of the state's natural resources. Unfortunately, those who participate in political conventions and set the agenda for party policy — no matter which political party — are sometimes the most radical and the least inclined to compromise. The same is commonly true of party caucuses, which select the candidates that will be on the ballot when we step into the voting booth.

In order to win at the caucus or primary level, candidates sometimes adopt positions they think will help them win. For example, while serving as Minnesota Governor, Tim Pawlenty declared himself a believer in human contributions to global warming. By the time he briefly became a presidential candidate in 2016, he was a "doubter," as the political winds blew in the opposite direction.

Supporters of dedicated conservation funding can't rest in the belief that this battle has been won. Opponents have openly declared their intention to reverse that victory. Vigilance, and battling to preserve it, is the price that supporters will have to show themselves willing to pay.