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Sen. Torrey Westrom: Stearns County project uses entrepreneurial awards

ST. PAUL -- The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Natural Resources (LCCMR), of which I am appointed to, met June 25 to review projects for the upcoming fiscal year which included the Avon Hills landscape, located in Stearns County. 

Avon Hills, which is west of St. Cloud in the middle of Minnesota and overseen by Saint John’s Arboretum and University, covers approximately 80 square miles in Avon, Collegeville, Saint Joseph, and Saint Wendel townships. The landscape contains the highest variety of plants in the county and protects several remarkable plants and animals.

There have been various land-use demands made on this topography due to land value increases. The goal of LCCMR and Saint John’s Arboretum and University is to help Stearns County preserve the Avon Hills landscape from being developed. Developing this land would be detrimental to the plants, wildlife, and other resources that make Avon Hills so unique.

LCCMR has been presented with a well planned and unique proposal to help preserve the Avon Hills landscape. What sets this project apart from other LCCMR projects is its entrepreneurial way of awarding the funds for conservation easements. Rather than using only an appraisal to set the price, landowners are allowed to bid lower than the appraised price and compete for the funding. Each piece of property being considered is scored for environmental benefits. The score is then combined with the landowner’s bid to create a “Conservation Value Rating.” This process ranks the bid and can guarantee that public money is spent on the most profitable and effective projects for the community and the Avon Hills landscape. It will use the "marketplace" to find more willing sellers and those who are not as interested to sell simply won't.

I highlight this unique proposal because it represents that there can be new ingenious ways to explore how we spend taxpayers’ money. Government spends millions of dollars from the lottery proceeds, the Legacy Amendment Sales Tax from 2008, etc., for environmental benefits – often critiqued by taxpayers that they overpaid or didn't get the best bang for the buck.

This project may demonstrate to the DNR and other government entities that there might be a better way to spend less, get more, and spread the taxpayers’ money further. That's something I am always interested in pursuing to change – how government sometimes works and thinks. We don't always have to operate government the same old way. This project is to illustrate that and to make you aware that some of us continue to fight for more efficiency in how government does its work. If this project is successful, it could bring a whole new mindset to how and whose land government buys easements from. We should never stop asking, "What if?"

LCCMR and Saint John’s Arboretum and University are continuing to work together on this project. In the upcoming LCCMR meetings, we will review and approve a list of potential landowners for this project if it is awarded the funding.