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Support for habitat funding growing

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WILLMAR -- "The time has come!" shouts the leader of the group of men and women ready for a change in society.

"We must fight for what we believe in! We fight for the future!"

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Such is the rallying cry in movies too numerous to name.

This dramatization, however, does mirror the effort to bring the Outdoors Amendment to a constitutional vote in Minnesota.

The battle wages dates back years and years ago as our natural resources dried up, were cut down or polluted by our own disinterest and neglect. Slowly a seed of revolution was planted.

But a revolt needs a cause and for it to stand on its own legs, a solution to the problem.

That's where the Outdoors Amendment comes in. The proposal would raise the state's sales tax by Z, of one percent for conservation, habitat and arts.

The bill, HF 2285/SF 6, has lived and nearly died in the state Legislature over the last few years. Hopes died in 2006 when the Legislature ran out of time to pass it. Last year, it didn't get out of committee.

But 2008 will be different, according to Garry Leaf, spokesman for Sportsmen for Outdoors Amendment, who spoke at the Prairie Pothole Banquet Friday in Willmar.

"This is going to be voted in the first week or two in the Legislature," he said. "It's the most important sportsmen issue in the state's history."

He's confident because of support from both sides of the state's governing body. In a letter signed by Anthony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, the House Majority Leader, and Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, the Senate Majority Leader, the two chief authors of the bill said, "Considering the bipartisan support for this bill, and the wide margin of passage in both the House and Senate, it seems clear that the legislature supports putting this constitution amendment to a vote of the people."

But though the Legislature convenes again this month, Leaf said we shouldn't back off the support already shown for the amendment.

"This is individual grassroots support. And it's literally being hundreds and thousands of sportsmen writing letters to their congressmen. That's really what does it," he said. "Hiring lobbyists works, but this grassroots effort really does it."

The bill would create four accounts for the collected tax to go: Clean Waters; Fish, Game, Wildlife; Trails, Parks, Natural Areas; and Arts/Art Access. The money that goes into the overall habitat account could be about $100 million per year, Leaf said.

That money would be about $52 million more than what the state generates from all hunting and fishing license and stamp sales.

The impact of that money would be well-received across the state, Leaf said.

"Forest fragmentation has just started to happen in northern Minnesota. It's a huge issue," he said. "It started in states like Michigan and Wisconsin. The lumber companies started to sell land off with no hunting posted. There are lands that will forever be gone. That's the first habitat problem they've seen there. That's an issue that's massive."

In our area, there would be more funds available for projects like the carp control structure at Lake Wakanda or for restoring native prairie, which is of major concern to conservation groups in this area.

"Just dealing with restoring habitat, you could see about $30 million out of the game and fish account," Leaf said.

A big stumbling block to support has been the question of who would decide where the money goes.

"There would be a Sportsman's Stakeholder Council, a Grants Program so local groups can apply for money for projects and an Accelerated Forest Account (if the measure passes in the form it did last year)," Leaf said. "We feel that will encourage sportsmen to support this initiative.

"When you talk to sportsmen, they say, 'Who's going to oversee the money?' Those additional assurances will increase sportsmen's support."

For more information on the Outdoors Amendment, visit the group's web site at www.voteoutdoors/com.

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