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Outdoor issues at stake in environmental bills: Viking Sportsmen on board with fee increases

Ingebrigtsen

Bills to fund the DNR and regulate other environmental policies were passed in the House and Senate last week in Minnesota, but the final bill could face trouble if it reaches Gov. Mark Dayton.

The Minnesota House environment finance bill passed by an 80-53 vote last Thursday after the Senate passed its version by a 36-30 vote hours earlier.

A committee co-chaired by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, and Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, will likely be formed this week, Ingebrigtsen said, to work out the language of a final bill.

BUFFER LAW A HOT TOPIC

Much debate continues to be centered around the buffer law, Dayton's signature environmental policy that requires vegetative buffers around the state's public waters.

Bills by the Republican-led House and Senate would change and delay the 2-year-old law, along with making other environment-related changes the governor may not like.

"I'll veto any bill that has any gutting or delay in the buffers," Dayton has said.

Fabian said landowners express several issues with the buffer law, which requires 16.5-foot or 50-foot buffers around water to prevent pollution and sediment from getting into water. Buffers also can provide critical habitat for pheasants and other wildlife.

A DNR official told a House committee that a provision in Fabian's environment bill could result in 48,000 miles of buffers going from the 50-foot requirement to 16.5 feet.

"Where I stand on it is you have to be within reason," Ingebrigtsen said in an interview last Friday. "There's some lands out there where buffers on public waters are way over 50 feet. So then we start talking about, well, do we give the agriculture community or whoever owns this credit for doing that job plus some? Also, there's some areas where the 16 foot is adequate. Some areas you just don't need a 50 ... Certainly, this is sparking some interest, but it also needs to be done the right way."

The Fabian bill also would delay when buffers are required from this year to Nov. 1, 2018.

Republican Rep. Paul Torkelson of Hanska, the prime author of buffer legislation, said the biggest complaint he hears from landowners is ditches they always thought were private land are being designated as public waters on buffer maps the DNR is creating. Such a change increases state regulations on the ditches.

Torkelson said he looks at the proposed buffer changes as clarification, not an overhaul.

Ingebrigtsen said there's room for compromise.

"At least I hope there is," he said. "It's Democrats and Republicans alike that represent the ag community and those that have properties along public waters. The governor has threatened vetoes before where he hasn't. We just need to get cooler heads to sit down and get this figured out."

HUNTING, FISHING LICENSE FEES NOT INCLUDED

The bills also fund the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the DNR and the Board of Soil and Water Resources at lower levels than their leaders want.

Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr told a committee earlier this month that the House bill would not cover his agency's expenses and said layoffs and service reductions could be expected if it became law.

The bills do not include most fee increases sought by the DNR, including those on hunting and fishing licenses. That's despite an outpouring of support for increasing the fees by Minnesota hunting, fishing and environmental groups all over the state.

Forty-eight of those groups signed on to a letter sent March 14 to legislative leaders urging action this session to make incremental increases in licence fees before the DNR has to begin cutting staff or programs.

"We know there's folks that are certainly OK with this," Ingebrigtsen said. "I, myself, as well."

Ingebrigtsen says an oversight committee determined fees will need to be increased in the coming years but that the money is there to make it through this coming biennium.

The Alexandria Viking Sportsmen joined the growing list of outdoor groups who have thrown their support behind the license fee increases after the club's March meeting where Glenwood Area Fisheries manager Dean Beck and wildlife manager Kevin Kotts were a part of DNR staff on hand to discuss issues facing their department.

Viking Sportsmen president Gene Sullivan said they were told the local agency is down to a bare minimum as far as employees.

"Most have retired, and they haven't been able to replace them because they don't have the funding," Sullivan said.

Under the proposed increases from Dayton's budget plan earlier this year, a deer hunting license would rise from $30 to $34. An annual fishing license would rise $3, from $22 to $25. Several other licenses would also be affected.

"We definitely supported it," Sullivan said of the fee increases. "We just didn't feel they were asking for enough."

Historically, the DNR has sought license fee increases every six to 10 years to keep up with inflation. The last time fees were increased, in 2012, the Legislature approved a fishing license fee increase that was $2 less than the agency had requested. License fees are the main source of funding for the DNR's Game and Fish Fund.

"I was the one who carried the bill to raise the fees the last time this was passed," Ingebrigtsen said. "I understand it very well, but it does remain to be seen if it happens this time."

At this point, it's not.

"I'm saying they will be raised, but they will be raised when it's time, and there might be some language we may settle on later on," he said. "I don't know that for sure."

Several other provisions will be part of negotiations on a compromise environmental bill, possibly including:

• Deer hunters using muzzleloader rifles could mount scopes on them. Currently, law only allows hunters 60 years old or older to use scopes.

Ingebrigtsen said the House version allows scopes but missed inclusion in the Senate version by a few votes.

"It's getting more votes every time we deal with this," Ingebrigtsen said. "What I like about scopes on a muzzleloader is when you take that shot on a deer, chances are better you're going to kill the deer than with open sights. People can understand that I think."

• Allowing an angler to have a second line during the open-water season for a $5 fee. Half the money from the extra fees would go to stocking walleyes.

"We're one of the few states left that doesn't have that," Ingebrigtsen said.

• The state would be banned from further restricting the use of lead shot.

• Blaze pink would join blaze orange as a color hunters can wear.

• DNR permits would remain in effect during a state government shutdown, which could occur if lawmakers and the governor do not agree on a budget by June 30.

• Anyone convicted of grossly exceeding hunting limits would not be allowed to obtain a hunting or fishing license for 10 years.

Don Davis of the Forum News Service contributed to this report.

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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