Most years, conversations around the Capitol building in St. Paul are heavy with a tone of financial scarcity. That should not be the case in 2022. Minnesotans must call upon their lawmakers to seize this rare opportunity and make a monumental investment in our future.
Thanks to a historic $7.75 billion surplus in the state budget, excellent rates for bonding and a windfall of federal funding, Gov. Tim Walz and state legislators can make strategic, long-term investments that will meaningfully improve all Minnesotans’ quality of life. An investment in our lands and waters would do just that.
Minnesota’s iconic lands and waters are famous for their beauty and the immense opportunities they provide for outdoor recreation, from our wilderness areas, city parks and everywhere in between. An ever-growing stream of visitors are enjoying the outdoors: In 2020, an estimated 12.3 million people visited Minnesota state parks and recreation areas, which was a 25 percent increase over 2019. This love for outdoor recreation is key to the state’s $16 billion per year tourism industry, which supports 11 percent of all private-sector jobs and benefits communities of all sizes throughout the state.
Nature also happens to be one of our most cost-effective yet underappreciated forms of public infrastructure. Grasslands, forests and wetlands act as a natural filter to keep our rivers and lakes clean, providing affordable drinking water. Floodplain habitat and wetlands help protect lives and property from flooding by slowing down and holding water. Expanded parks with vibrant tree canopies temper extreme heat in our cities and towns while providing places of rejuvenation. And nature does all of this while removing massive amounts of carbon from the air.
When we let it work as intended, nature is a mighty tool to address climate change and improve health and quality of life for Minnesotans.
Despite its multiple benefits, the state’s investment in nature is falling behind. Twenty years ago, spending on the environment and conservation was just over 2% of state general fund spending; today, it’s less than 1%. Even with dedicated funds like the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, Minnesota is underinvesting in nature.
This lack of funding has caused a significant deterioration of our natural resources. State officials now consider 56 percent of our lakes and rivers to be impaired. Tallgrass prairies once covered 18 million acres in Minnesota and today less than 2 percent of that habitat remains. Our forests are not as diverse as they once were and are at risk due to pests and diseases, which are exacerbated by climate change. These losses have tangible effects on the health of our communities, especially communities of color, who have for too long felt health impacts from air pollution and a lack of green space.
Minnesota’s current financial footing gives lawmakers the opportunity to make one-time investments that will shift the momentum in the opposite direction without permanently growing state spending. By making wise use of the budget surplus, state-issued bonds and incoming federal funds, lawmakers can support programs that help our lands and waters do what they do best.
Consider the example of a healthy tree, whether along a sidewalk or a riverbank. It pulls carbon from the atmosphere and emits oxygen, providing us with clean air to breathe. The tree’s roots capture rainfall, reducing pollutants and sediment in our water. Its leaves shade our homes and streets, reducing our need for energy consumption and lessening the effects of extreme heat. Even on a small scale, trees can have a measurable impact.
Now imagine the potential of a large-scale commitment to trees across the state. Utilizing state funding for tree planting and forest management would be one of the most cost-effective solutions to improve the quality of life for every Minnesotan. The cumulative effect of more trees in our neighborhoods, parks and forests would be hugely consequential — not just for our communities, but for moose, loons, trout and all of Minnesota’s quintessential wildlife.
Minnesotans should call upon the governor and state lawmakers to seize the opportunity in 2022 to deliver funding for nature that will help mitigate climate change, make our cities and towns more resilient to extreme weather, and improve air and water quality. Investing now is the best chance we have to sustain the nature Minnesotans love.
Kris Larson is the executive director of Minnesota Land Trust, Ann Mulholland is the director of The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, and Susan Schmidt is the Minnesota state director of the Trust for Public Land.