6.2 Land Conservation Program

The District operates a Land Conservation Program that is focused on conserving key natural resource areas where conservation could be used to protect water resources and ecological integrity, or where conservation of key land cover types could be beneficial to preserving high-infiltration areas, reducing impacts of new volumes of runoff, or restoring disturbed or drained wetlands.

A primary purpose of the Land Conservation Program is to conserve, maintain and enhance green infrastructure for stormwater, runoff management, habitat, and other water resources benefits.  Inherent water resource benefits are provided though proactively conserving and restoring existing systems of streams, lakes, wetlands, associated buffer areas, and other wildlife habitat and natural resource corridors throughout the watershed. 

The Land Conservation Program is an integral strategy in achieving the goals set forth in this Plan.   This Plan significantly expands the program to include Key Conservation Areas (Figure 33) across the watershed where implementing land conservation activities (such as differential regulation, local government requirements, conservation education, or acquisitions of easements or land with high ecological value) could improve ecologic integrity, surface and groundwater quantity and quality, wetlands integrity, and streambank stability. 

The program focuses in large part on the use of conservation easements and assisting landowners and affected cities in exploring the wide variety of conservation options that are available.  The program also includes, to a lesser extent and often by facilitating partnerships, the fee acquisition of very high priority natural resource lands.  The program also focuses on encouraging natural resource based land management options and ecological restoration, where appropriate.  Other tools include conservation development planning, technical assistance to area municipalities on issues such as ordinance development and conservation planning, and education and outreach.  The program leverages funding by taking advantage of numerous cost-share, partnership, and tax incentive opportunities.

Many District Cities are developing Natural Resource Inventories and Open Space Plans that highlight the role of green corridors in protecting wetlands, water quality, and wildlife.  These plans are in keeping with the Metropolitan Council’s 2030 Regional Development Framework (January 2004) which highlights natural resource protection as one of the four policies the Council will pursue to guide the achievement of regional goals.  Nonetheless, many District Cities need assistance in implementing their open space plans and require additional landowner options and incentives to make these plans a reality.  District natural resource protection and restoration goals can best be met by coordinating with the Cities and providing additional incentives for landowners.  Working collaboratively and utilizing an array of tools, we can help promote growth and development that conserves and restores our best natural resources, enhances the value of our developed areas, and is consistent with sound landowner financial and investment principles.

The goal of the Land Conservation Program is to conserve and/or restore the District’s best remaining natural resources.  We plan to accomplish this through the following four objectives:

  1. Providing technical assistance to municipalities, landowners, and others on land conservation and restoration options;
  2. Facilitating multi-agency cost-share agreements with landowners interested in restoring natural areas on their properties;
  3. Acquiring conservation easements and property from willing sellers to protect natural resources; and
  4. Restoring conserved areas to improve water resources.

MCWD takes action and provides services that facilitate conservation throughout the District by providing technical assistance, offering educational opportunities, and serving as a clearinghouse for land conservation and restoration options.  However, an emphasis of the educational and technical assistance work will be combined with District land conservation financial resources to focus on Key Conservation Areas identified in this plan (Figure 33). 

The Key Conservation Areas contain resources that are protective of surface water and groundwater quality and quantity; demonstrate high-value habitat characteristics; are protective of aquatic habitat; or provide a variety of habitats supportive of aquatic-based species abundance.   These Key Conservation Areas:

  • Create corridors along streams and channels to provide buffers for water quality and stream stability as well as to create linkages and wildlife corridors.
  • Include wetlands that were identified in the Functional Assessment of Wetlands as having exceptional or high vegetative diversity or wildlife habitat or are wetlands with moderate to high restoration potential.
  • Include high-value upland areas, such as forested areas that provide connected habitat as well as high potential infiltration or evapotranspiration.
  • Incorporate land cover types identified in the Minnesota Land Cover Classification System (MLCCS) survey conducted by Hennepin County as being minimally disturbed, with potential high-value habitat.
  • Contain areas that have multiple natural resource values, such as Minnesota County Biological Survey (MCBS) sites of biodiversity significance; Metro regionally significant ecological areas; or areas where rare or threatened species have been documented by the DNR. 
  • Incorporate green and natural resource corridors as designated by the DNR, Metropolitan Council, Hennepin County, and local communities.

The Key Conservation Areas identified in Figure 33 represent focus areas for the District’s Land Conservation efforts.  The map is a beginning point to help prioritize outreach and focus conservation efforts.  The Land Conservation Program is a voluntary, opportunity-based program to conserve lands within the District priority areas.  The areas identified as Key Conservation Areas are where the District will primarily devote its efforts with this program.  Similarly, properties not on the map may be considered for conservation action on a case-by-case basis.  Where possible, acquisitions will be used integrally or to supplement other activities and projects in this plan.  For example, a stream restoration project may include Land Conservation Program activities to conserve the riparian buffers.

Areas have been identified as Key Conservation Area on the basis of landscape-scale considerations identifying where land conservation activities can effectively serve watershed goals, in part because of their strategic locations and in part because the opportunity exists to coordinate land acquisition and other land conservation program efforts at multiple sites within an identified subwatershed.  However, conservation opportunities may occasionally arise outside the Key Conservation Area that, in a given case, also offer the opportunity to attain significant water resource benefits equivalent to those offered within a Key Conservation Area.  The criteria used to evaluate potential acquisitions give more emphasis to acquisitions within a Key Conservation Area, but that does not preclude an acquisition outside of a Key Conservation Area that otherwise offers significant water resource benefits.

The District recognizes that the identification of Key Conservation Areas is meaningful for planning purposes, and intends that the designation of such areas communicate its intention to prioritize efforts and resources.  At the same time, the land conservation program, and the capital project for land acquisition and restoration, encompasses the acquisition and restoration of sites not within such areas.  Whether or not a potential acquisition is within a Key Conservation Areas, the key will be to follow the process and apply the listed criteria to ensure that the acquisition in question cost-effectively fulfills the goals and strategies discussed here in the plan.

At the same time, if the District finds that the identification of Key Conservation Areas no longer accurately represents the focus of the District’s land conservation efforts, it will undertake a plan amendment to revise the areas so identified.

Building on Figure 33, the District follows a detailed selection process and set of guidance criteria for prioritizing expenditures and opportunities related to the program.  As potential acquisitions are identified, they are reviewed by District staff and ranked according to 24 criteria.  The ranking system helps prioritize individual properties and is an important part of the decision making consideration.  It is, however, a tool to evaluate, and not the final word on, a property’s conservation merits.  Table 25 below summarizes the criteria currently used in the ranking system which may be updated in the future by the Board of Managers without a formal amendment to this plan, provided that they still advance the goals and strategies of this plan.

Table 25.  MCWD Land Conservation Program current ranking criteria.

Topic

Criteria

District Planning Priorities

 

Within MCWD Conservation Plan Area

Benefits a Planned or Existing MCWD Project Area (e.g. Stubbs Bay, Painters Creek, Minnehaha Creek, Six Mile Creek, etc.)

Water Resources

Wetland Management Class

Wetland Restoration Potential

Wetland Protection

Creek Frontage

Lakeshore

Buffer Width

 

Creates opportunity to fix erosion problems

Steep slopes

Infiltration potential

Wellhead protection area

Habitat

 

 

 

DNR Site of Biodiversity Significance

Unique or significant ecological resource per MLCCS, MCBS, Etc. - consider type of habitat, size, condition, landscape context

Habitat restoration potential (biological potential and well as feasibility (cost and partnerships))

Regionally Significant Natural Area

Leverage

 

 

Connectivity with/proximity to other conservation lands

Creates opportunities to leverage conservation on additional proximate or adjacent lands

Potential cost and opportunities for cost-share/recovery

Other Public/Planning Considerations

Parcel size

Degree of threat

Provides public access/ educational/demonstration opportunities

Consistency with municipal plans

Located within Metro Wildlife Corridor Focus Area

 

Properties meriting further consideration are then reviewed by a Technical Advisory Team which includes staff from several natural resource agencies.  The Advisory Team’s recommendations are forwarded to the Board of Managers to make case-by-case decisions on potential acquisitions.  The specific steps in the District’s decision making on individual transactions are as follows.  These steps may be updated from time to time by the Board of Managers without a formal amendment to this plan, provided that they continue to advance a detailed and thorough case-by-case review of each potential transaction, have an appropriate level of legal review, and continue to require final approval of all transactions by the Board of Managers.

Exploration

  1. Investigate property and options and decide whether or not to advance to Technical Advisory Team for review – Land Conservation Specialist
  2. Evaluate against other possible projects and decide whether or not to proceed with negotiations subject to Board approval – Technical Advisory Team
  3. Order appraisal – Land Conservation Specialist (Board approval required if greater than $5,000)

Commitment

  1. Develop draft contract and/or easement – Land Conservation Specialist in consultation with Legal Counsel
  2. Internal sign-off on contract and/or easement – District Administrator and Legal Counsel
  3. Internal review - Board of Managers in Closed Session consistent with Minn Stat 13D.05, subd. 3(c) and other relevant laws as may exist or be promulgated
  4. Secure landowner agreement subject to final Board approval – Land Conservation Specialist
  5. Final approval of agreement – Board of Manager in Open Meeting, signed by Board President

As noted in the listing of criteria above, when the District evaluates a potential acquisition of easement or other land rights, that evaluation will consider the opportunities the property will offer to advance water resource goals through the restoration of hydrology and habitat.  When an acquisition occurs, the District will prepare a management plan for the parcel that will evaluate restoration opportunities and costs in more detail.  Proposed restoration work will be presented to the Board of Managers for evaluation and approval.  When the proposed work constitutes a capital improvement, it will be considered and authorized pursuant to the formal process specified at Minnesota Statutes §103B.251.  If the proposed work is a capital improvement beyond the scope of restoring the natural features and function of the acquired property, or otherwise directed toward more regional water resource purposes, it does not fall within this project area and will require a plan amendment before it is pursued.  Otherwise, if a land acquisition occurs pursuant to the process and criteria outlined here and restoration activities are fully considered in that process, the District will not require a plan amendment before proceeding with the identified restoration work.

The types of activities that the District may include in parcel restoration work include the following and those similar:

  1. Regrading for natural system restoration
  2. Excavating to enlarge or improve wetland functions and values
  3. Remeandering of a small section of creek, ditch or other watercourse
  4. Removing drainage tiles, placing ditch plugs and other steps to restore natural hydrology
  5. Installing erosion control and stabilizing banks with engineered and bioengineered features
  6. Installing local stormwater conveyance/control structures such as culverts and weirs
  7. Installing stormwater treatment best management practices
  8. Planting native vegetation; and
  9. Managing existing vegetation and invasive species via cutting, herbicides, prescribed burning and other techniques.

Estimated expenditures and acreage goals based on the Key Conservation Areas have been provided in both the Capital Improvements Program and Subwatershed Plans for budgeting purposes.  It is the intent of the District to provide flexibility over financial resources to leverage opportunities when they arise.  For instance, it is expected that occasionally the District will acquire an existing lot and resell either the lot with a conservation easement or a subdivided portion on non-conservation portions of the lot.  For these types of acquisitions, the District will consider gross expenditures related to cash-flow position and risk management, but will be further looking at long-term financial implications for such transactions relative to the net, not gross budget. 

The District intends to work cooperatively with private landowners, government agencies, and non-profit organizations to provide an integrated set of land conservation, restoration, and management tools for landowners.  The table below shows some of the agencies active in the District and partnership roles the District envisions:

Table 26.  MCWD Land Conservation Program potential partners.

Organization/Agency 

Role

MCWD

Acquisition of conservation easements and fee title; restoration of conserved lands; cost-share on private land restoration

Cities

Varies by city.  Some have active land and easement acquisition programs (ex. Minnetonka).  Others use park dedication through the development process to help secure greenway areas (ex. Minnetrista).  Also see LGU requirements below.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

Park and trail acquisition and management

Hennepin County Dept. of Environmental Services

Acquisition of donated conservation easements; cost-share and technical assistance for restoration and best management practices

Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority

Trail acquisition and maintenance

Carver County Parks

Park and trail acquisition and management

Three Rivers Park District

Park and trail acquisition and management

Metropolitan Council

Partial funding for regional parks and trails

State of Minnesota

DNR Owns and manages Wolsfeld Woods and Woodrill Scientific and Natural Areas. DNR provides grants to cities for acquisition.  Funding for state and regional parks and trails.

US Department of Agriculture/Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Services Agency

Cost-share and technical assistance for restoration and best management practices

US Fish and Wildlife Service

Cost-share and technical assistance for restoration

The Trust for Public Land

Assists government agencies and non-profit organizations with acquisitions, financing for acquisitions, and prioritizing lands to conserve in urban and developing areas.

MN Land Trust

Acquires and monitors conservation easements, primarily through donation or as part of conservation development projects.  Works with individual landowners and developers.

The Nature Conservancy

Owns and manages two nature reserves in the District – Hardscrabble Woods (Minnetrista), Ferndale Marsh (Wayzata)

Embrace Open Space

Education, technical assistance, and communications on open space issues for local communities.

Wildlife Organizations (e.g. Minnesota Waterfowl Association)

Cost-share and technical assistance for restoration