What are the outcomes of 10 years of Outdoor Heritage Fund investments?

It’s been over 10 years since Minnesotans passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which was a game-changer for conservation efforts in the state. It injected hundreds of millions of dollars per year into conservation-oriented programs, one-third of which goes through the Outdoor Heritage Fund (OHF). Although OHF staff track dollars spent and acres protected to ensure they meet the constitutional requirements of the fund, they wanted more data to understand what specific benefits were represented in those investments. Knowing how many acres supported game species like deer and pheasant as compared to those supporting trout streams or rare species will help the OHF better communicate and manage the broad range of benefits represented in their conservation portfolio.

A new collaboration between the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the Institute on the Environment, and the Natural Resources Research Institute takes on the challenging task of analyzing the impact of protecting over 350,000 acres, an area larger than some counties, in Minnesota via OHF easements and land acquisitions. Their report looks at ten years’ worth of land acquired with OHF dollars to score acquisitions using traditional metrics such as habitat for game or non-game species alongside co-benefits such as bird watching, pollinator habitat, or drinking water protection. Although some co-benefits considered, like drinking water protection, are outside the scope of OHF requirements, it is important to quantify them because they represent the added value of wildlife and habitat conservation activities to the public. In total, the researchers created 21metrics for environmental benefits, and scored the entire OHF acquisition portfolio on all of them.

The OHF portfolio contained a higher proportion of land supporting deer, pollinators, upland game birds, forest bird Species of Greatest Conservation Need, trout, and pheasant than a comparison set of similar parcels, indicating successful targeting of those benefits. Compared to the long standing Wildlife Management Area program, OHF investments increased the protected area of the highest quality class habitat for game mammals, upland game birds, and forest bird species of greatest conservation need by approximately 75%, indicating that Legacy Amendment investments are complementing and growing historical conservation efforts.

While protecting land that excels at supporting a single benefit is an important strategy in a strong conservation portfolio, it can be complemented by protecting land that performs well across multiple benefits, even if it does not stand out on any individual metric. The researchers assessed the OHF portfolio’s targeting of multiple benefits by first counting how many of the 21 metrics were scored in the highest quality class on every parcel statewide. They then compared the OHF portfolio to all unprotected and undeveloped land in the state.

If the OHF portfolio did not select for land with multiple benefits, the distribution of orange bars would look similar to the distribution of purple bars. Instead, they found that 70% of OHF land scored highly for three to five co-benefits, whereas only 50% of unprotected land had a similar number of co-benefits. Land outside of the OHF portfolio tended to have fewer co-benefits, however, the researchers discovered that a relatively small amount of land, about 37 square miles, scored in the highest quality class for 12 or more metrics. Of this land, 93% was unprotected by any conservation program. Targeting land with high numbers of co-benefits is a cost-effective way to support numerous conservation benefits with a single acquisition.

The Legacy Amendment will continue to fund OHF’s land acquisition and protection efforts for another decade, and the conservation landscape in Minnesota will continue to evolve. The methods developed for this report can be repeated as the OHF portfolio grows to continue to provide transparency and improve the communication of the benefits supported by the public’s investment in conservation.

Full report available at: https://hdl.handle.net/11299/220181