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Under the ‘One Minnesota’ banner, natural resource protections stand to gain, but the clock is ticking

The appointment of Sarah Strommen to serve as commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is a positive, major first step.

Cass Lake, Minnesota
Cass Lake, Minnesota
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Gov. Tim Walz’s administration has embraced a vision called “One Minnesota,” which is more than just a unifying banner cry. As it has been rolled out with new appointments of critical commissioner positions, it looks as though it will be a promising organizing principle. In particular, the appointment of Sarah Strommen to serve as commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is a positive, major first step. Strommen’s comments at the annual DNR Roundtable recently recognized that the old top-down model of natural resource management needs to – and should — undergo a shift. New partnerships and broad-based civic action will be needed to solve Minnesota’s land and water problems and to ensure overall conservation protections.

As the former assistant DNR commissioner in charge of fishing, hunting, wildlife, state parks and trails, she has seen firsthand the challenges we face. Now, as the person in charge, her watch will help determine the course that DNR needs to pursue to manage the complex ecosystems in Minnesota and the diverse base of users who benefit financially and recreationally from living and working across Minnesota’s rich natural resource landscape. It won’t be easy. She has inherited a time-sensitive agenda that includes these sobering facts and disturbing issues:

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    • The number of hunting and fishing licenses sold has fallen, creating a potential challenge to the DNR’s revenue model.
    • Aquatic invasive species (AIS) like zebra mussels, spiny waterflea and starry stonewort have spread from a few lakes in 2008 to hundreds of waterways, increasing their infiltration in our lakes and rivers – with more threats on the horizon. Nonetheless, many boaters and anglers continue to be in denial about how they are spread: Recent science is very clear: It is not waterfowl or wildlife. It is people moving boats and other equipment. And some boats are worse than others.
    • The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, using Clean Water funding, has tested almost half of the waters in Minnesota and listed more than 40 percent of Minnesota’s lakes and rivers as impaired to the point that they are unfishable and unswimmable.
    • Native insects, including pollinators, are crashing.
    • New climate science research shows that Minnesota is the state in the U.S. that is experiencing and witnessing the effects of rapid climate change  the most dramatically – right now with wetter weather, added heat stress, more severe seasonal storms and potentially chronic impacts to food production, forest and lake health and infrastructure.

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No agency like DNR can manage natural resources alone. Millions of small, discrete choices and actions by millions of individuals impact natural resources. Even an agency with adequate funding, committed and professional staff, and strong regulatory power cannot manage such complex problems alone. The obvious tool to increase the efficiency of DNR is to increase engagement with a wider base of natural resource users who can help combat the problems we face.

Broadening the list of relevant users

Jeff Forester
Jeff Forester
And that model of engagement is going to include – as the Star Tribune’s Outdoor columnist, Dennis Andersson, wisely pointed out recently, “outdoors enthusiasts, more silent-sport and non-consumptive users…” including “hikers, climbers or paddlers, and still others back-country adventurers, cross-country skiers, runners, bird watchers or bikers. In short — forgive the generalization — they’re more the REI crowd than the Cabela’s crowd.”

To Anderson’s list, I would add Lake Associations, of which there are more than 500 in Minnesota currently – arguably the largest conservation constituency in the state, and demonstrably the most active. A 2017 study was done by Concordia University, called “Minnesota’s Lake Associations: Who they are and what they do.”

Key findings from the study include:

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      • Collectively, the 500-plus Minnesota lake associations donate about $6.25 million, annually, to the care of Minnesota’s lakes.
      • Collectively, the 500-plus lake associations in Minnesota contribute about 1.2 million volunteer hours annually to lake conservation activities, including AIS inspection, water quality testing, and community education/outreach activities.
      • The top 3 concerns of lake associations in Minnesota are: AIS, overall water quality, and runoff control.
      • Most respondents agree or strongly agree that their associations face hurdles in becoming more engaged in lake conservation activities.
      • The top 3 challenges that Minnesota’s lake associations face as they work on achieving their goals are: inadequate member participation (i.e. the needs far exceed the available human capital), they feel that they are not being heard/taken seriously by the DNR, and the aging population of lake property owners.
      • Most respondents do not agree that their lake associations are authentically included in the lake management planning process.
      • Most respondents do not feel that their lake associations have real authority over the lake.
      • Most respondents do not think that the DNR has sufficient lake management policies in place.

Commissioner Strommen and her husband, Jon, are members of the Wabedo-Little-Boy-Cooper Lakes Association (WLBCR), with Jon serving as a past president of that organization. The WLBCR likewise has been a member of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates since 2011, which helps address many of the issues outlined in this article throughout Minnesota and at the state Legislature.

The commissioner has long worked to engage citizens in a positive manner, recognizing that partnerships are essential to making good decisions and building civic trust, and she has been active in evaluating and reforming traditional participation structures for state agencies, local governments and nonprofits. Strommen, as mayor of Ramsey, championed a culture of effective citizen participation. I believe she will bring this same spirit to her new role.

The need for active citizenship 

 The last 50 years of Minnesota conservation efforts have shown that new legislation, new laws and regulations probably are not enough by themselves to rehabilitate our damaged ecosystems. A legal framework can help, and is essential, but we have witnessed these important laws going unenforced due to lack of will. After a decade of Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment funding, dollars alone are not an answer either.

We cannot buy our way out of our environmental woes.

What has been lacking are efforts to develop civic leadership at the local level with regard to water. Building civic infrastructure in our communities of a broad cross-sector base around water issues is a role for which lake associations are uniquely well positioned. This is a base upon which an innovative DNR commissioner can advance a new conservation ethic for Minnesota.

As the first woman to hold the DNR commissioner’s title, this appointment has demonstrated already – however incremental or symbolic – that the One Minnesota model will hopefully embrace the diversity and non-traditional ways of doing things. The times we are living in dictate new strategies and new roles for citizens that focus on governing for the common good in the places where each individual has the authority to act. One Minnesota will help to develop active citizenship as opposed to consumer citizenship.

Active citizens are policymakers. This is a subtle but important point: When citizens see themselves as policymakers, they are more aligned with taking actions to achieve the public good and less likely to entrench within their own special interests. They are also far more likely to publicly support any policy proposal that emerges, even if it is not the policy that they originally endorsed.

We know Strommen will be looking for your input and ideas. The many members at Minnesota Lakes and Rivers want to welcome her to her new role. We look forward to working with her and the agency to protect Minnesota’s lake and river heritage. I hope MinnPost readers throughout the state will join us in supporting her as well.

J​eff Forester is the executive director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates.

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