"Our goal is to make this the best County Conservation Board in the State."
With those words, Palo Alto County Conservation Board member Tony Streit of West Bend summed up the feelings of over two-dozen county residents on hand at Tuesday's meeting of the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors.
Director Art Hampe presented the annual report of the County Conservation Board to the supervisors. Over 30 county residents were on hand to learn more about the Supervisors opinions and concepts of the local Conservation Board.
Those questions arose after a meeting with the Emmet County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 8 where the two boards talked about possibilities of sharing programs and departments on a general basis among other topics in a yearly get-together of the two boards.
"We have had a Conservation Board in this county for 53 years," Hampe noted. "Currently, we oversee 2,555 acres and no taxpayer money has been used to acquire any property in the past 42 years."
According to Hampe, Palo Alto County's Conservation Board is ranked 16th in the state in terms of land managed and 61st in budget statewide.
"We have a lot of donors and outside parties that come in and make these things possible for us," Hampe noted. "The land that we are acquiring is not high CSR rated land. It has very low productivity or it is in wetland status. And, any lands that are acquired through the REAP (Resource Enhancement And Protection) program have those taxes paid by the state."
In the county, 1,984 acres of land were acquired through REAP funding, and the county receives $2,522 in taxes from those properties. Of 1,154 acres of wetlands in the county, the state pays $1,416 in taxes. "That shows that these lands aren't totally lost from the tax roles," Hampe noted. "They still generate the minimum tax rate."
During their talk with Emmet County, Palo Alto Supervisors had been impressed that Emmet County ran three campgrounds and received around $70,000 in revenue yearly from those operations.
"We had 1,191 campground visits in 2012, averaging a day and a half each, representing 4,630 people," Hampe reported. "That represented a 70 percent increase in revenue for us."
Hampe noted that Palo Alto County has enjoyed considerable success in writing and receiving grants over the years. "We have received $525,334 in grants in the past year, with the Conservation Board having to come up with $4,462 in matching funds for those grants. We've received over $1,903,104 in grants and donations for our areas and projects in the last 30 years and $900,000 of that came in the last two years."
"Another thing that tells me we're doing it right is that fact that we have 196 volunteers to our programs," Hampe noted. "That sets us apart from other counties."
Hampe asked the board if they had any specific questions about the Conservation Board's operations.
"We just wanted to see what was going on with Conservation," Board Chair Ron Graettinger replied.
Hampe noted that he had made comparisons of the operations of Kossuth, Emmet, Clay, Pocahontas and Palo Alto County Conservation Boards, and found that Palo Alto County was right in the mix of the other counties.
Supervisor Ed Noonan spoke up. "Please, don't call me anti-conservation. I got several calls and e-mails telling me that I was going to shut the Nature Center down. That's not so. My concerns are about spending the taxpayers' money."
"I think you folks have enough land in the county," noted Supervisor Jerry Hofstad. "You don't need any more that's my opinion."
"But if it is donated to us to use, it's hard to turn it down," Hampe countered.
"The more lands like this that we have, the more money is spent in our county by hunters and visitors that come in," noted Kory Hagen, a member of the audience.
"What is your goal? Noonan asked the Conservation Board members in attendance.
It was at that point that Streit replied with their wish to be the best Conservation Board in the state.
"I feel that our county really needs to be forward thinking in terms of the environment for families that we can provide," noted Jane Minor, a member of the audience. "We want young families to move here, professionals, and they want offerings for their families and things to do. Having an active conservation board like ours is very important to our future."
"One of my goals is for better communication between our board and the Board of Supervisors," Hampe said. "There have been some things that haven't been communicated that well in the past and I accept responsibility for that. But I want better communications between us in the future. But I have to ask, what are your goals?"
"Our goal is to have the best Conservation Board that we can with the most efficient budget possible," Noonan answered, bringing applause from the audience and the meeting to a conclusion.