Minnesota’s Wrong Turn on Natural Resources

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It wasn’t that long ago that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources was one of the most admired organizations of its kind in the country. Generations of professionals who have dedicated their careers to the conservation, protection and enhancement of Minnesota’s land and water treasures and the plants, animals and fish that depend on it deserve much of the credit for this achievement, just like the many citizens who supported them.

Senior management supported them by fighting for the laws, funding, and people needed to do the job and vigorously opposing efforts to seek short-term profits at the expense of long-term environmental health and needs. of future generations. And they listened to and supported those in charge on the ground and the citizens who were on the front lines of the fight.

I fear that is no longer the case. Professionals and dedicated citizens are still there, always doing their best, but support from the summit has weakened. Instead, in too many recent cases, the agency has favored short-term profits over long-term conservation and special interests over the public interest.

This disturbing change is evident in these examples:

• Forest management: In 2017, in response to pressure from the forest products industry to increase the annual timber harvest on land managed by the MNR from 800,000 to over one million cords, the agency commissioned an analysis of sustainable timber harvest levels. The report suffered from significant uncertainty regarding projected yields, effects on biodiversity, impact of climate change, and effects on other non-timber values ​​at the landscape scale. In addition, the demand for lumber was actually decreasing, and the main result of dumping more lumber into the market would be to reduce stumpage prices.

However, in 2018, the DNR chose to increase the annual harvest to 870,000 cords.

• Operation of Wildlife Management Areas (WMA): State law requires that WMAs be managed primarily for the benefit of wildlife. Logging is permitted, but only as a habitat management tool. Nonetheless, perhaps because it was unable to meet its new harvest targets on its other lands, the agency imposed hardwood production targets on these areas, regardless of the effects on habitat. . This has alarmed the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which after careful consideration has placed unprecedented conditions on future multi-million dollar federal grants to ensure wildlife comes before logging on these lands. .

• Regulation of off-road vehicles (ORVs): ORVs can cause serious damage to land and water. Although only a small minority of Minnesotans own ORVs, MNR has encouraged greater use rather than regulating them to protect the environment. Almost all statewide and regional trail plans undertaken in recent years have been for motorized trails. A state trail plan even contemplates allowing ORVs to access state parks, although this is expressly excluded by law.

MNR hired a National Off-Road Special Interest Group to help plan the route of another, which would cross the entire state of North Dakota to Lake Superior. He declined to conduct the necessary environmental review of the proposed border-to-border trail, and the Federal Highway Administration is now investigating whether MNR properly reviewed the environmental impacts of a proposed motorized trail in Houston County.

• Authorize the extraction of copper-nickel: Throughout the licensing process for what would be Minnesota’s first non-ferrous metal mine, MNR has demonstrated a pro-project bias. He expressly described his role as being to promote mining when in fact state law requires MNR to issue permits to preserve the state’s natural resources from the negative impacts of mining. mining. Faced with the agency’s non-compliance with the law, public interest groups took it to court, ultimately obtaining an order from the Minnesota Supreme Court rescinding the permit and returning it to the agency.

As I know from personal experience as a longtime agency lawyer and deputy commissioner under the DFL and Republicans governors, this is a difficult balancing act. MNR is responsible for protecting the environment and natural resources while ensuring reasonable use, especially for timber production, mining, outdoor recreation, and public and private water supply. This forces senior officials to weigh current use against protection and conservation for the future. They must face it under constant political pressure for immediate economic development. Although the agency was not perfect, it generally managed to maintain a reasonable balance.

We have lost this balance and we need it. In this period of accelerating climate change where every decision must help our natural environment to become more robust and resilient, the actions of the MRN too often do the opposite.

Steve Thorne, of Two Harbors, was Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources from 1978 to 1990.


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