Anderson: GOP effort to slash, shift Minnesota's conservation funding darkens future

Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune
·4 min read

As May approaches and the Legislature grinds toward its final days, we are confronted again by vast differences of opinion about what Minnesota should look like, not just this year or next, or even 10 years from now, but 25 and 50 years into the future.

It's a given that politicians don't often think on such a grand scale. But our challenges are many, and time has long since passed that serious people should consider seriously where Minnesota has been and especially where it's headed, environmentally, and what can be done about it.

Many of the state's rivers, for example, are dirty, as are some of its lakes. Minnesota forests are quickly transitioning, and its native prairies are nearly gone. Add to this urban sprawl spreading like a virulent cancer between Rochester and the Twin Cities and the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, and you have the makings of a state whose best days are behind it.

Many are to blame for this tragedy-in-the-making. Among them in this legislative session are Senate Republicans who are fiddling with environmental funding proposals paid for by lottery proceeds, and who are proposing to whack nearly $10 million in general fund appropriations from the Department of Natural Resources budget.

Examples:

• The Senate proposes to cut aquatic invasive species (AIS) funding from the state's general fund by $1 million and shift that expense to the DNR's Heritage Enhancement Account, a shortsighted plan because hordes of invasive carp, zebra mussels, spiny water fleas, Chinese mystery snails, New Zealand mud snails, starry stonewort, curly-leaf pondweed and a who's-who of other creepy critters and plants have invaded Minnesota waters and will continue to.

• Senate Republicans also propose to reduce $1 million in general fund support for the DNR's fight against chronic wasting disease (CWD). The Senate instead wants to shift that amount of CWD funding to the Game and Fish Fund, which is supported by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.

Additionally, in what should be a personal embarrassment to Republican Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria, a retired sheriff, the Senate proposes to cut $336,000 in general fund appropriations for DNR enforcement, instead asking the DNR's Heritage Enhancement Account within the Game and Fish Fund to step up to the plate for that amount.

The cuts and shifts are being proposed so Republicans can appear to be "holding the line on spending" while actually, in some instances, asking other accounts established originally for other purposes to foot the bill.

In addition to being unsustainable, this cost shifting to "dedicated" accounts betrays the public trust.

General fund dollars by contrast are important to the DNR because they carry fewer restrictions than dedicated accounts on how they can be spent, a flexibility that is necessary to keep the agency running.

Senate Republicans this session also oppose the DNR's proposal to increase boat registration fees marginally, which hasn't been done in Minnesota since 2006. Also, again this year, Republicans are attempting to alter the state's water laws, in part by requiring the automatic transfer of irrigation and similar permits from property seller to property buyer.

If enacted, DNR managers believe, this change would allow farmers and other property owners to "sell" DNR permits they hold to irrigate or otherwise draw on public waters — a major change in Minnesota law, which historically has defined all waters as public, not private, resources.

Does any of this cost-cutting and expense-shifting make sense when record numbers of Minnesotans are enjoying state parks and otherwise passing the good time outdoors?

Of course not.

Perhaps at session's end the Republican proposals will be revealed to be little more than a bluff. As they did last session, they're attempting to roadblock Gov. Tim Walz's zero-emission vehicle mandate, and are threatening to cut environmental funding unless they prevail. Maybe that conflict will be resolved another way.

But even if it is, Minnesota's long-term natural-resource problems won't be addressed until serious people of all political persuasions consider seriously what Minnesota should look like 25 or 50 years down the road.

This won't happen until the public demands it.

But unfortunately, people only rarely make their voices heard to legislators about natural-resource stewardship, even though they consider the outdoors to be Minnesota's primary attribute.

By themselves, environment and conservation groups can't drum up the volume of public support such a visionary quest would require.

Political leadership is needed.

Regrettably, Walz so far has curried little, if any, favor among conservationists, believing instead, it seems, that a plaid shirt and a bit of bluster will sufficiently ingratiate him to outdoor types.

Far better if the governor — and other state leaders — would consider forming a commission of citizens, business types, legislators and others to help define what Minnesotans want their state to become, and suggest ways to get there.

Alternatively, we can continue on our current path, and watch it all slip away, legislative session by legislative session.