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Minnesota DNR commissioner talks budget priorities

DNR commissioner Sarah Strommen

The two-year budget Gov. Tim Walz has proposed for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources would maintain and enhance many of the services people have come to expect from the agency, but the quality of those services will suffer if the governor’s budget priorities aren’t met.

That was the message from DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen this week in Thief River Falls during an interview about the governor’s budget proposal.

“The budget is not just a numbers game or process; it really is about the outcomes that budget pays for,” Strommen said.

Appointed as DNR commissioner in January, Strommen was in northwest Minnesota on Tuesday to meet with Roseau County commissioners before traveling to Thief River Falls, where she met with DNR staff as part of a “listening session” the agency holds for employees across the state.

It was her first visit to northwest Minnesota.

Walz has proposed a $1.202 billion DNR budget for the 2020-2021 biennium focusing on four “One Minnesota” budget initiatives: Protecting natural resources, making smart decisions with good information, connecting people with the outdoors and addressing operational needs to ensure high-quality services.

The DNR’s current budget is about $1 billion.

The governor’s proposal would increase boat registration fees and the surcharge for fighting aquatic invasive species, Strommen said, and provide $4.6 million from the state’s General Fund for monitoring and responding to chronic wasting disease in wild deer. The plan also calls for $1.8 million for research to better estimate deer populations.

The recent finding of CWD in a wild deer in Crow Wing County increases the DNR’s workload and commitment to controlling the spread of the brain disease, which is fatal to deer, elk and moose, Strommen said. Adding money from the state’s General Fund to the proposed budget lessens the burden on the DNR’s Game and Fish Fund, financed largely through hunting and fishing license dollars, she said.

“I think it recognizes that (chronic wasting disease) really is a public problem that we have in the state that we all should pay for in addressing -- not just a problem for deer hunters and that is paid for on the backs of license dollars,” Strommen said. “I think that’s a really important proposal, and really, the urgency has not gotten any less.”

Improving infrastructure

The governor’s proposed increase to boat registration fees would allow the DNR to better maintain and improve boating access and other water recreation infrastructure, Strommen said. Tied in with that, raising the aquatic invasive species surcharge would pay for preventing AIS, restore grants to local partners and better address infestations that do occur.

Boat registration fees would increase anywhere from 25% to 45%, depending on the size of the watercraft, Strommen said, while the current AIS fee of $5 would increase to $7.25.

Surcharges on boat registrations and nonresident fishing licenses are the primary funding sources for the state’s AIS program.

Boat registration fees have not increased “in quite some time,” Strommen said. And with the May 11 Minnesota fishing opener approaching, boating access and invasive species issues are on people’s minds, she said.

“What I’m hearing from folks is when you go to a boat access or you go to a recreational facility and it’s not maintained to the standards you expect, it’s very frustrating,” Strommen said.

Still to be determined is how Walz’s DNR budget bill fares in the Legislature. The House version of the bill, which proposes $1.205 billion for the biennium, is “more similar” to the governor’s budget, while the Senate’s version, at $1.122 billion, doesn’t fund any of the governor’s priorities for the DNR, Strommen says.

“The impacts of the Senate budget are we won’t be able to do the AIS prevention and response work that I think folks expect, we won’t be able to maintain the boat accesses to the level that people expect, and we won’t be able to maintain parks and trails to the level that people expect,” Strommen said. “In fact, we will have to close campsites in shoulder seasons and reduce services.

“We won’t be able to respond to CWD in the way that we believe is necessary to be most successful.”

All of the proposed budgets include appropriations from the Clean Water Legacy funds and the Parks and Trails Legacy funds, which are considered one-time appropriations that must be reappropriated each budget cycle, said Mary Robison, the DNR’s chief financial officer.

Other expenses

While the governor’s budget includes money for more creel surveys that benefit fish management and improvements to trails, boating access and other recreational amenities, it also addresses rising costs for labor, health insurance and other basic DNR operations, Strommen said.

“The money that is needed to cover those known cost increases is really important, too, because that’s what allows us just to stay even and maintain the same level of service,” Strommen said.

If operational funding lags, staff reductions are inevitable, she said.

“Ultimately it means we’re going to have fewer people, and then fewer people means we will be doing less in terms of resources that we manage,” she said.

Two years ago, when lawmakers after much debate passed legislation allowing the DNR to increase fees for hunting and fishing licenses and state park admissions, users generally supported the hikes because they knew what was at stake, Strommen said.

She hopes the same holds true for the governor’s DNR budget recommendations.

“It really is a modest investment to be able to maintain and improve, really, what is world-class outdoor opportunities here in Minnesota,” Strommen said. “They’re so diverse, and they’re varied and they’re all over the state. I think Minnesotans know that and understand that and appreciate it and are willing to pay for it.”

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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