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Meet the woman who occupies ‘the most hated place to be in any state government anywhere in the country’

New DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen was battle tested as mayor for a small city. Will that help her manage an agency often under siege?

Sarah Strommen
Sarah Strommen is leading Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, a job in which the skills she developed as a small town mayor are going to be tested.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

One of Sarah Strommen’s proudest achievements as the mayor of Ramsey, a city of 24,000 in the Twin Cities northwest exurbs, was building a highway interchange.

Highway 10, which runs through the city parallel to a set of train tracks, needed a grade-separated crossing for ambulances and fire trucks. But when Strommen took office as Ramsey’s mayor in 2012, competition for the money needed to build the project was fierce. Nearby cities, like Coon Rapids, had plans for their own road projects and there was disagreement over which project should be the priority.

Strommen knew that the lack of coordination would imperil each city’s hopes, though. “When we all go to the Capitol and each say our different messages and sort of look like we’re fighting, the money is all going to South Metro,” she told MinnPost.

Instead, Strommen preached a united front, and the local governments worked out a regional plan they could all agree to — a plan that also happened to have Ramsey’s interchange at the top of the list. It opened in 2015.

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“We came together and made a plan and really held that collaboration together,” Strommen said. “And sometimes that can be hard because there are those parochial interests kind of pulling at you, but holding tight to that collaboration was really important.”

Now Strommen is leading Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, a job in which the skills she developed as the mayor of a small city — finding creative solutions, encouraging compromise and building trust in government — are going to be tested. The sprawling agency not only has a $1 billion budget and 2,700 employees; it has a mission that requires it to wade into some of the most intractable fights in the state, issues that have split Minnesotans for decades.

“I always used to think DNR commissioner must be the most hated place to be in any state government anywhere in the country, said John Marty, a DFL state senator from Roseville. “Because everybody knows how to deal with outdoor things their own way and they always are convinced that the state agency is doing a terrible job.”

The same, but different

In many ways, Strommen, 46, has walked a traditional path to the top of the DNR. The Twin Cities native graduated from St. Paul Central High School before getting degrees from Grinnell College in Iowa and Duke University in North Carolina (with a stint of studying birds in Costa Rica in between).

After returning to Minnesota, she worked as the policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters and as associate director of the Minnesota Land Trust, a group that helps landowners with conservation projects. Strommen, an avid angler, also has experience in state government: She joined the Board of Soil and Water Resources in 2012 and then, in 2015, jumped to DNR, where she led the agency’s Fish and Wildlife and Parks and Trails divisions.

In other ways, Strommen stands out from past commissioners. For starters, she is the first woman to ever hold the job. Strommen said she tries not to “dwell on” that fact, but she acknowledged that it nevertheless represents a tectonic shift for an agency that has struggled to entice women, racial minorities and others to outdoor activities like hunting and fishing amid the state’s changing demographics. (She was also the first woman to be mayor of Ramsey.)

There’s also the notion that the leadership style that has garnered Strommen early praise as head of the DNR was shaped less by her time in the natural resource fields than by her time in local government. She was a city council member before becoming mayor. “I spent a lot of time in that role trying to work on ways to more effectively engage people in government decisions,” Strommen said. In other words, she’s going to bring the eye of a local mayor to the problems of an outdoors agency.

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Many who have worked with Strommen in the last decade describe her as having a relentless dedication to hearing out every side of an issue before making a decision as well as a belief in consistency and transparency when government takes action. She is frequently praised for being an excellent listener.

Those traits are not just a taking points spouted to fit the “One Minnesota” mantra of her new boss, Gov. Tim Walz. In 2012, Strommen created a low budget, no-frills video as part of her mayoral campaign, a message that talked a lot about the sort of bridge-building and collaboration Walz constantly touted during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign. “I strongly believe that every council member’s voice should be heard and respected in the decision-making process,” Strommen says in the video. “It’s the diversity of our opinions blended together that makes the outcomes better for our community.”

One example of that came soon after she became mayor of Ramsey, said John LeTourneau, the city’s current mayor. To foster engagement, Strommen and the council invited people to public brainstorming sessions on city issues.

First priorities

Thanks to a mix of timing and past work by the agency, Strommen has so far been able to avoid some of the DNR’s most divisive issues. The agency granted a critical permit for PolyMet to build a copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes in November, two months before Strommen was appointed. And improved fish stocks on Lake Mille Lacs have led the DNR to ease its ban on keeping walleye, a contentious policy that sparked massive political battles under former DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. Another potential mining project, Twin Metals, which hopes to build its own copper-nickel mine just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, is still working its way through the federal government’s approval process.

Instead, Strommen has used her honeymoon period to attend a swath of public forums and to dive into other pressing troubles. One top priority is fighting chronic wasting disease, a fatal brain ailment that infects deer, elk and similar animals. CWD has practically overrun parts of Wisconsin, but it’s also begun to creep into Minnesota. Strommen asked for $4.57 million in new spending over the next two years to boost the DNR’s efforts to regulate deer hunting and help rebuff the disease.

Another key issue is maintaining the DNR’s “relevancy,” Strommen said. That includes connecting people to the outdoors and hunting and fishing, which has seen a decline nationally and in Minnesota. People who traditionally hunt and fish are getting older, and Strommen said the agency must do better at recruiting people who have who have traditionally been left out of the sports.

The relevancy problem is also a money problem, as DNR collects license fees from hunting and fishing. But Strommen believes that a shrinking connection to nature will also result in broader harm to the environment. The Legacy Amendment, for example, a dedicated sales tax for environmental projects, was approved by voters in 2008 “because people cared about those issues and they voted to pay for them,” she said. To that end, Walz’s budget proposal also has $2 million in new spending for trail maintenance and another chunk of new cash to help fight the spread of invasive species.

Questions on the hot-button issues, however, aren’t totally dormant.

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Some in favor of PolyMet and Twin Metals have raised concerns that Strommen is something of a sleeper agent for anti-mining interests because of her work at Friends of the Boundary Waters, which has fought to stop the mines. At an introductory hearing in the state Senate last month, Justin Eichorn, a Grand Rapids Republican, asked whether Strommen could separate her past job and support the part of DNR’s mission dedicated to promoting mining. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, also grumbled at the time of her appointment about her stint at Friends of the Boundary Waters.

On the flip side, some of those opposed to the copper-nickel mines have shown frustration at Strommen’s stance against re-examining the PolyMet permits, especially after a dam for iron-ore waste in Brazil collapsed in January, killing more than 100 people. There’s also been some exasperation at the idea of a DFL administration continually searching for common ground on environmental issues where they don’t think there’s room to compromise.

Don Arnosti, executive director of the Izaak Walton League’s Minnesota division, said he is a fan of Strommen, but argued that deciding whether to permit a mine is a binary choice. “The general philosophy of ‘let’s all sit down and work out an arrangement does work on many, many natural resource issues because many of them are not ‘winner take all,’” he said. “Mining is a complete commitment of that land forever to that industry because it wreaks devastation on the natural environment.”

Copper-nickel mining has been more scrutinized than traditional iron-ore mining in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, mainly because it carries greater environmental threats. The extraction process can make heavy metals that leach into water. If built, PolyMet would be the first mine of its kind in the state.

Strommen told MinnPost her work at Friends of the Boundary Waters ended in 2005, just one year after PolyMet began its environmental review process, and that mining was never her focus there. Twin Metals was founded by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta in 2010.

Strommen has not taken a position on Twin Metals. When asked if copper-nickel mining is too risky for Minnesota forests and waterways, Strommen said DNR must judge each project “on its merits.”

“That’s what our process is set up to do, is to look at all of those issues as well as look at the various viewpoints that get to us,” she said.

‘She’ll do well’

Despite the splash of skepticism about Strommen and the DNR, there is hope she can smooth out differences over the DNR, just as she did in Ramsey.

Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota, which works to find compromises on environmental issues at the Legislature, said major policy changes without bipartisan support are either impossible to pass or difficult to make “effective and durable.”

“I think that people who have served in roles of responsibility in local government, where your friends and neighbors can be happy or upset about what you do, are some of the best about working with different constituencies helping find middle ground,” Austin said.

In 2015, Gov. Mark Dayton pushed through a clean water law that required protective buffers on waterways to filter pollution. After rolling it out, the administration caught enormous flak, in part for not having enough input from farmers. Strommen had a hand in developing the rule, which a handful of state agencies have worked on since to implement and enforce.

Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, had a positive memory of Strommen’s involvement. His organization has been outspoken about its frustrations with the law. Yet Strommen was “willing to sit down at the table and listen and hear our concerns,” he said.

Kathryn Hoffman, CEO of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, an organization that has fought both copper-nickel mines and supported the buffer law, said Strommen has “always been a good listener” and easy to work with at DNR and the Board of Soil and Water Resources. “I like her approach.”

One of Strommen’s earlier supporters is 6th District Congressman Tom Emmer, whose district includes Ramsey. At a ribbon cutting for the Highway 10 exchange in 2015, he even proclaimed that “anybody who thinks government doesn’t work has never been to the City of Ramsey,” according to Strommen.

Reached by phone, Emmer, a Republican who has championed copper-nickel mining, said his trust in Strommen hasn’t changed. Emmer said Strommen has the savvy to handle the “big job” of DNR commissioner. “You get a lot of different constituencies that have a lot of different agendas,” he said. “She’ll do well.”