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House environment panel advances ‘Lawns to Legumes’ pollinator program

Legislators are seeking to continue a groundbreaking program to grow bee habitats.

Minnesota’s Lawns to Legumes program offers grants and technical assistance to establish pollinator-friendly native plants on residential lawns. The program helps landowners replace grass with plants such as honeysuckle, clover, thistle, sunflowers and goldenrods.

Small patches can provide big boosts to pollinators, Marla Spivak, Distinguished McKnight Professor at the University of Minnesota, told the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee Wednesday.

Sponsored by Rep. Brad Tabke (DFL-Shakopee), HF207 would appropriate $4 million from the General Fund in the next biennium to the Board of Water and Soil Resources for Lawns to Legumes.

The bill was approved as amended by the committee on a split voice vote and sent to the House Ways and Means Committee.

The first-in-the-nation program was started as a pilot in 2019 with money from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and has shown to be very popular.

“Minnesota is leading the nation in supporting pollinators,” Spivak said. “Other states want to emulate us -- especially Lawns to Legumes.”

Landowners can apply for grants of up to $350 to help establish the plants. There is a focus on areas known to have supported the endangered rusty patched bumble bee, Minnesota’s State Bee.  

Outcomes of Lawns to Legumes since 2019 include more than 3.5 million square feet of pollinator habitat created, $900,000 in matching grants for individuals and 128 workshops attended by 5,745 people. Grants have been awarded in 86 of 87 counties.

About 12,000 of 18,000 individual grant applications can’t go forward without more funding.  

Tabke presented Cornell University research that has shown bird populations plummeted, in part due to disruption of the food chain. He also shared pictures of native plants in neighborhoods. The aim, he said, is to dispel the notion that native plants are ugly.

“They really work well in a suburban setting,” he said, adding that the program comes with a lot of education.

But Rep. Josh Heintzeman (R-Nisswa) isn’t convinced the education is sufficient for some people to get native plants established.

“Cities are rejecting it because instead of Lawns to Legumes, it’s lawns to weeds,” he said.

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