State agencies in Minnesota often play an outsized role in the most bitter fights between environmentalists and industry — such as mining proposals or anti-pollution regulations for agriculture — and have sometimes drawn frustration across the political spectrum in recent years over permitting decisions and enforcement practices.
So for incoming Gov. Tim Walz, who campaigned on running a government that builds bridges among different factions, a slate of cabinet picks named on Thursday represents his first significant foray into trying to create a delicate balancing act.
To that end, Walz said he selected leaders who are “problem solvers and consensus builders” at four environmentally related agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. None came from state or federal elected offices, where partisan histories can inflame debate. All brought lengthy résumés.
The initial reaction? A somewhat calm and cautious response from politicians and others involved in thorny debates over jobs and environmental protection. No selections seemed to roil either environmentalists or pro-industry groups who have been closely watching the appointments as a signal of the Walz administration’s priorities.
Nancy Norr, who chairs Jobs for Minnesotans, an organization of labor and businesses interests that supports natural resource projects such as copper-nickel mining, said it’s early to judge whether the appointees will ultimately be friends or foes on specific projects, but noted they have “exemplary experience for these roles” and a “real commitment to public service.”
Walz appointed Thom Petersen, the government relations director for the Minnesota Farmers Union, to run the Department of Agriculture. Laura Bishop, who was the chief corporate responsibility and sustainability officer at Best Buy, was tapped to lead the MPCA. Jan Malcolm, the commissioner of the Department of Health, was asked to stay on in her job. Finally, Walz picked Sarah Strommen, an assistant commissioner at DNR, to take over the agency.
Together, they are tasked with handling clean water, air and safe food regulations and overseeing thousands of state workers. The DNR and MPCA in particular often handle permitting for large agriculture and natural resource projects.
At a press conference in Hastings on Thursday, Walz said smooth sailing at state agencies is a priority. He has made a point on the campaign trail of noting contentiousness during outgoing Gov. Mark Dayton’s tenure and saying he wants to build an administration in which all sides feel they are heard — even if tough decisions are made.
After Dayton rolled out his signature rule requiring buffer strips on agricultural land, a measure aimed at preventing water pollution, farmers bristled at what they saw was enforcement overreach from agencies and a lack of input. (That includes Petersen’s Farmers Union.) Some environmentalists have been furious at decisions from DNR and others to permit controversial projects like the PolyMet copper-nickel mining plan near Hoyt Lakes. The MPCA drew flak from industry and some environmental groups for a new rule created to protect wild rice, which was eventually withdrawn.
State Rep. Dan Fabian, the top Republican on an environmental committee in the House, said he understands agencies will have philosophical differences during a DFL administration, but summed up the last few years in his eyes, saying agencies have been “so top down and quite frankly heavy handed at times.”
Fabian said he would have still liked to see more commissioners from outside the Twin Cities, but would generally withhold judgment until the Walz administration gets underway. He mentioned he has had a good working relationship with the Strommen, the new DNR chief.
Norr said she hopes Walz’s “One Minnesota” campaign slogan translates to a regulatory process that “will be handled equitably and fairly for any project” before state agencies.
“That should include balancing our ability to have a strong economy and a quality environment,” she said.
At least some environmental organizations cheered Walz’s picks. Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota and a member of the Walz transition advisory board, said it’s important to set a theme and tone with appointments, and Walz landed on a “pretty pragmatic group” capable of being trusted by a wide array of people. Austin’s organization is dedicated to finding compromises on environmental issues.
A change up at DNR
While most of the environmental agency commissioners will be new to the role, Walz’s choice for a new DNR commissioner was particularly notable. Strommen will be the first woman to serve in the role. And while Petersen and Bishop will replace agency leaders who did not reapply for the job, Strommen was picked over the current commissioner Tom Landwehr, who was a finalist for the position.
Strommen has been in the DNR’s Fish and Wildlife and Parks and Trails divisions, but previously was the policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, which has staunchly opposed the PolyMet copper-nickel mining plan near Hoyt Lakes and a proposal by Twin Metals to build a copper-nickel mine near Ely on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Strommen deflected questions on the Twin Metals mine plan, saying only she would approach it the same as any other natural resources project. She did say she doesn’t expect to readdress the critical permits granted in November to the PolyMet mine by DNR.
Still, her selection was a welcomed by Jeremy Drucker, a spokesman for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, another group dedicated to opposing Twin Metals. Drucker said he thinks Strommen will have “an open mind” and make decisions based on science and evidence, which he expects to favor denying permits.
Ultimately, Walz said his administration won’t dodge tough questions on environmental projects, but he said he hopes his agencies offer a “reset” on some of the most divisive issues, “at least to show we’re trying to approach this in a different way.”