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State Senate bonding committee visits Itasca State Park

The Minnesota legislators heard presentations about conservation and trail projects, and some of them waded in the Mississippi headwaters.

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The Minnesota Senate bonding committee stop at the headwaters of the Mississippi River Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021 during a three-day tour of northwest Minnesota – from left, Sens. David Senjem (R-Rochester), John Jasinski (R-Faribault), Ann Johnson Stewart (DFL-Wayzata), Tom Bakk (I-Cook), Charles Wiger (DFL-Maplewood), Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls) and Gene Dornink (R-Hayfield). Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

Itasca State Park was a stop Wednesday on Day 2 of the Minnesota Senate Capital Investment Committee’s three-day northwest Minnesota tour.

The body is commonly known as the bonding committee.

The senators’ tour bus arrived at the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwaters Center during the afternoon after earlier stops in Moorhead, Perley, East Grand Forks and Red Lake Falls. They also planned a visit to Bemidji State University in the evening.

“This year coming up, ‘22, historically is the year where we do a large bonding bill, investments in the state’s public infrastructure,” said Sen. Tom Bakk (I-Cook), who chairs the committee. “The even-numbered year is the year we do a state budget, so the whole session kinda gets consumed with the state budget.”

Therefore, Bakk said, the committee sets aside time during odd-numbered years to work on a capital investment bill.

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“Historically, the Senate has always taken the bonding committee on the road in the summer and fall to look at projects around the state,” he said. “It’s much better to go out and see things than it is to expect everybody to come to the Capitol and see it with a PowerPoint presentation.”

In order to pass, Bakk said, a bonding bill is required to have a supermajority, or 60 percent in favor in both houses.

“It’s always a little trickier,” he said. “You have to have Republicans and Democrats working together. But I have a pretty good working relationship with both Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate.”

Also challenging from a Senate point of view is the fact that the bill has to originate in the House. “If the House gets bottled up and can’t pass a bill, there’s really nothing the Senate can do,” said Bakk. “But we’ll be ready if the House can get something put together. We’ll have looked around the state and looked at what we think the pressing priorities are.”

He said the committee is looking particularly at parks and trails, state colleges and water and wastewater infrastructure projects.

Parks and trails

Park naturalist Connie Cox led the senators down a short trail to where the Mississippi river flows out of Lake Itasca, then back to Mary Gibbs via a boardwalk.

Cox explained the steps the park has taken to make the headwaters and its natural surroundings more accessible, such as introducing a motorized wheelchair designed to handle gravel trails, an accessibility along the shore at the river’s source and wheelchair-accessible where visitors can sit and dip their feet in the water.

Hank Ludtke, who chairs the Becker County and Frazee economic development authorities and vice-chairs the Becker County Recreational Advisory Committee, presented funding requests for five separate phases of the Heartland Trail extension project.

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The requests total $2.2 million and include:

  • $500,000 to finish construction of the trail segment between Detroit Lakes and Frazee.

  • $750,000 for engineering, design, land acquisition and initial construction from Moorhead to Hawley.

  • $750,000 for the same between Park Rapids and Osage.

  • $200,000 for engineering, design and alignment selection from Osage to Frazee and from Detroit Lakes to Hawley.

Ludtke said much of the trail will follow road rights of way with portions going through a state park and a scientific and natural area (SNA).

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Eric Haugland of Park Rapids discusses the three-phase Itasca-Heartland Connection Trail project during the State Senate Capital Investment Committee's visit to Itasca State Park on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

Eric Haugland of Park Rapids also spoke about the Itasca-Heartland Connection Trail project, formerly known as the Heartland Spur Trail.

Haugland thanked the committee for supporting Phase 1 of the project, which was approved for $2 million last October to build a tunnel under U.S. Hwy. 71 just south of State Hwy. 200. He said construction will begin next fall.

To complete Phase 1, the project will run the trail three miles west to the park’s visitor center and connect with an existing snowmobile trail to the east. “So then, the snowmobilers can use the trail right away,” said Haugland.

He said Phase 2 of the connection trail will run from the tunnel to Emmaville, and Phase 3 will extend the trail along the County Road 4 right of way and connect it with the Heartland Trail two miles north of State Hwy. 34.

Clean water

The committee heard from Richard Biske with the Nature Conservancy, which supports healthy waters in the area through protecting forests and grasslands and reforesting the landscape. “The conservancy supports Minnesota DNR’s effort to get Minnesota Forests for the Future conservation easement funding to protect more private forest land in the region,” said Biske. “We also support the Board of Water and Soil Resources’ efforts to protect working grasslands – ranches, pasture and hayland – to keep it in working ranches but also to provide clean water to the streams and downstream lakes.

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“Lastly, we’re supporting reforestation – areas that need additional tree planting to be resilient forests of the future.”

While the conservancy does not receive state funds, Biske said, they support the DNR and BWSR’s efforts to fund these programs that align with the conservancy’s goals for keeping the Mississippi watershed clean.

According to a handout provided to the committee, the conservancy recommends the following investments in DNR conservation activities:

  • Forestry: $5 million to acquire forested parcels, $5 million for reforestation, $3 million to protect tree nurseries, $5 million to enhance the processing of seedlings at Badoura State Tree Nursery and $20 million to purchase conservation school trust lands to compensate the permanent school fund.

  • Working lands: $10 million for water storage in the Minnesota River and Lower Mississippi River basin, $10 million to reinvest in conservation easements and $5 for working grasslands.

  • Preservation: $3 million for wildlife management areas (WMA), $2 million for aquatic management areas, $2 million for SNAs and $10 million to develop Gateway WMAs.

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Several members of Minnesota's Senate bonding committee enjoyed the opportunity Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021 to wade in the Mississippi River only a few yards downstream from its source in Lake Itasca – including, from left, Sens. John Jasinski (R-Faribault), Ann Johnson Stewart (DFL-Wayzata), Charles Wiger (DFL-Maplewood) and David Senjem (R-Rochester). Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

Eric Hallstrom with the Department of Natural Resources said the committee’s visit was an opportunity to show them one of the state parks system’s crown jewels.

“But also, it’s a microcosm of the needs we have,” he said, listing such infrastructure needs as roads and trails, bridges, building components and wastewater systems. “It’s really an optimal opportunity to talk about those asset preservation needs.

“We need to talk about protecting what we already have. We have a huge, current replacement value of almost $3 billion worth of capital assets. So, whenever we get a chance to talk to our legislators about the important work of bonding and keeping what we have going, we certainly take advantage of that.”

Bakk said the DNR owns more buildings in the state than anybody. “They’ve got a lot of asset preservation, deferred maintenance type needs.”

Hallstrom said the DNR works with the governor’s office, and the governor brings a bonding proposal to the legislature. Meanwhile, the legislators’ tour is an opportunity for them to see first-hand the state’s physical assets and needs.

Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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