A recent decision by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to allow large “platform” docks in public waters fronting Minnesota lake cabins has brought on a lot more than a chorus of concern that room-size docks would change the aesthetics and biology of shore lands.
It has aggravated what appears to be an ever-growing divide between the DNR and those volunteer advisory groups who feel their advice is ignored. It’s also added heat to simmering discontent among agency staff over decision-making that some feel has become too politicized.
“There is genuine concern among professional staff that Minnesota is not managing its natural resources and ecosystems in a sustainable manner, and that problems are accelerating,” said Paul Stolen of the DNR regional office in Bemidji.
Stolen is president of the Minnesota Association of Conservation Professionals (MACP). The group will have its annual meeting Friday in Little Falls, where it will consider ways to address what Stolen said is growing staff frustration.
“Political considerations have led to silencing of, or interference with, information provided by [DNR] professionals,” reads a draft MACP resolution that will be discussed Friday.
The MACP will also hear from a representative of the controversial group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on ways to gain leverage in decision-making and whistleblower protection.
Can’t please everyone
DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten said these kinds of complaints aren’t new. “There were expressions of this kind of before I came to DNR five years ago,” said Holsten. “You can’t make everyone happy.”
He noted that when making its decisions, the agency must consider the science of resource management along with statutory mandated considerations.
But Jerry Maertens, a DNR wildlife specialist for 35 years before retiring two years ago, said business concerns often take priority. “The platform docks issue is another example of how the DNR makes decisions based on how an industry or business is affected rather than on principles of resources protection,” said Maertens of Bemidji.
At least three members of a docks advisory committee are upset.
“Why even ask people to invest time and energy into serving on a committee only to ignore their most substantial and carefully crafted recommendations?” they wrote in a Feb. 4 letter to Holsten. The signers were Henry VanOffelen with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Dann Siems with the Beltrami County Soil and Water conservation District in Bemidji, and Merilee Meyers with the Beltrami County Lakes and Rivers Association.
The 19-member advisory group said the DNR should develop regulations to address the docks issue, which promises to produce the level of tension that accompanied the noisy arrival of personal watercraft in Minnesota’s lake country three decades ago.
Instead, Holsten issued a five-year permit to allow dock platforms up to 170 square feet (or larger in “special cases”), a move critics say will allow the installation of so many large docks that control efforts will be blunted.
Regional Manager Mike Carroll said the DNR will develop docks regulations as it prepares long-awaited lakeshore-protection rules, and he added: “We are a diverse department, and while our first responsibility is resource conservation and protection, we have to balance economic and social interests.”
Other advice ignored
The large-docks issue isn’t the only one that has drawn fire from advocacy groups and DNR staffers.
Earlier this year, Holsten decided to allow “limited” access by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) into the Mississippi Headwaters State Forest southwest of Bemidji despite an outpouring of public support to close the forest to the machines.
Maertens said 93 percent of the 1,678 people who spoke at DNR field meetings on the issue favored closing the forest to the ATVs, a position he said was also favored by three of five resource managers inside the DNR.
“ATV drivers ignore signs, drive around gates, drive into the [Mississippi] River, rip around and do the damage including erosion,” said Matt Norton, an attorney with St. Paul-based Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. Norton said his group is considering legal action to overturn the decision that, he said, largely ignored public comment.
Larry Gates with the Kellogg Conservation Association near Wabasha said the ATV issue is disruptive in other DNR regions. Gates spent 34 years with the DNR where he helped coordinate advisory groups throughout southeastern Minnesota; he said he remains in regular contact with DNR employees.
The DNR has increasingly sided with ATV groups and opened more trails to off-road machines despite widespread damage they cause, he said. He said enforcement is lax, something underscored by a report by a legislative auditor’s report in 2003.
Gates said that over the last two years the DNR and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) have also “frustrated” efforts by another advisory group regarding a proposed ethanol plant in Eyota, Minn. (This group is an informal advisory group. See correction below.)
In addition, David Zentner of Duluth, a longtime Izaak Walton League activist, said that an advisory group on waterfowl management recommended four years ago that Minnesota continue to be “very conservative” in allowing increased bag limits of ducks because of habitat pressures in the Mississippi Flyway. Zentner said that Holsten “on his own” recently increased bag limits against the advice of the advisory group.
Disregarding advice from state-appointed groups isn’t limited to the DNR and MPCA. The Commerce Department recently sent a report on climate change to the Legislature that largely ignored or rewrote recommendations from a 55-member advisory committee appointed in May by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and staffed by a national consultant paid for in part with $40,000 in state funds.
MinnPost incorrectly reported in a March 6 post that an advisory group had been created to review a proposed ethanol plant in Eyota, Minn. The group referred to in the post was an informal organization that included citizens and other groups interested in the issue and was not appointed by the Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency or the governor.