Gov. Mark Dayton said Friday that he'll ask the Legislature to require a 50-foot buffer zone along most streams, lakes and wetlands to boost Minnesota's struggling pheasant population.
At an annual Department of Natural Resources meeting on outdoors issues, the governor said his proposal would create 125,000 acres of habitat for pheasants, other wildlife and pollinator insects. He said the plan also would reduce water pollution from runoff.
The state already has a rule requiring 50-foot buffer strips along some waterways, and smaller buffers along drainage ditches in farm country. But enforcement has been inconsistent — in some cases, nonexistent — because it's mostly been left up to local authorities. Dayton said the DNR would be in charge of enforcing the rules statewide to ensure consistency, through aerial and other inspections, and that violators would face increasing penalties.
"I recognize that this proposal will not be well received by some private landowners. They'll say, 'More government intrusion into our lives, our lands and our livelihoods.' To which I would reply, 'Yes, the land may be yours, but the water belongs to all of us and who will follow after all of us,'" Dayton said.
Only about 2 percent of the land in the state's pheasant range in southern Minnesota is publicly owned, which means that creating more habitat requires help from private landowners, the governor said.
Bruce Peterson, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said his group looks forward to reviewing Dayton's proposal when more details are given. Peterson, who farms near Northfield, said many Minnesota corn farmers voluntarily support conservation efforts already.
"It takes a one-size-fits-all approach and I think we need to know a little more about the details," said Doug Busselman, a lobbyist with the Minnesota Farm Bureau. He also said he's not certain that the current buffer requirements aren't working or that expanding the requirements will be more effective.
Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, chairman of the House outdoor recreation committee, said better buffers are "a nice thought" but he wasn't sure how the requirement could be enforced or where to find the money to pay to ensure compliance. He said the burden on landowners also is a "huge issue" for him.
The pheasant population was up slightly this year, but it was still 58 percent below the 10-year average and 71 percent below the long-term average, according to the DNR. Wildlife managers largely blame habitat loss to farming and development.
Dayton noted that the decline closely followed lower participation by farmers in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the proposal was good news for pheasants and the environment.
The governor acknowledged that his own agriculture commissioner, Dave Frederickson, who has expressed concern about mandatory measures to add pheasant habitat, did not attend the conference. Dayton told reporters after his speech that "responsible disagreements" among his commissioners weren't unusual and that he welcomed them.
Frederickson issued a statement saying he believes "that the best strategy is an incentive-based approach." But he said Dayton has taken "a bold step" and that he supports the governor's efforts to simplify the rules and make them more understandable.
Dayton said he expected Frederickson would participate in formulating the details.
"This is the policy of my administration, and I'm going to push for it as hard I can with everybody's help," Dayton said.
He said key details that have not been worked out include the fines and costs for extra enforcement efforts, and possible compensation for landowners. He said some limited exceptions may be carved out, but that the strength of his proposal is its simplicity.
"It's got to be consistent, and it has to have minimal exceptions to it, and it has to be monitored and enforced by somebody that's consistent statewide," Dayton said.