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Proposal would pay landowners for hunting access

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota landowners would be paid to open their property to hunters under a bill nearing a final Minnesota legislative vote.

Several other states have had success with similar programs, said Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids. He said the program is important because good hunting opportunities are becoming scarce.

"It's getting to be if you don't own a piece of land ... you have a hard time getting on prime hunting land," he said. "I think it's a good thing to do."

The Senate passed the proposal that would cost $1.4 million, but not the House. That leaves the decision about whether to include it up to negotiators on a House-Senate conference committee.

The provision is in one of two environmental bills nearing House and Senate votes.

Other provisions that conference committee members were to consider as they reconcile differing Senate and House versions of the bill include allowing hunters with disabilities to hunt from their vehicles, establishing a statewide course in the safe use of firearms, permitting spearing of northern pike on Cass Lake and maintaining the minimum age limit of 10 for hunting big game.

Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, who authored the bill, said he has been working closely with Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, to make sure the House version closely resembles a similar bill previously passed by the Senate.

"I can't see that we have major hurdles," Dill said. "It'll go rather quickly."

After a half-dozen meetings, an environment finance conference committee passed another bill dedicating nearly $59 million in spending on outdoors projects as recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

That money comes from a three-eighths of 1 percent increase in the state sales tax that voters put into the state constitution in 2008. The bill spends $18 million for prairies, $5.6 million for forests, $16.9 million for wetlands and $17.6 million for habitat conservation projects spread across most of the state's 87 counties.

The bill provides $6.5 million for restoring shallow lake and wetland habitats. Another $4.4 million was allocated for matching grants that local organizations will use to fix and protect forests, wetlands, prairies and habitat across the state.

Passing the bill had been delayed as lawmakers debated several controversial issues, including language passed toward the end of last year's session.

That language broadened the definitions of protect, enhance and restore in a way that made outdoors groups fearful that money would be diverted away from projects the amendment was intended to fund.

"This has been a divisive issue," said Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul.

Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, helped pass the new definitions last year. She said they were necessary to make sure "protect" meant more than just buying land. However, after a meeting with House leadership and outdoors groups, she withdrew last year's changes and restored the amendment's original language.

Garry Leaf, executive director of Sportsmen for Change, praised the conference committee for dropping the definitions. "That was a real show of support," he said.

The reconciled bill now returns to the House and Senate floors for votes. If it passes both bodies it will go to Pawlenty.

Andrew Tellijohn reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.