Anderson: Walz, DNR propose to tap state surplus for $118 million to fix hatcheries, water accesses

A Department of Natural Resources gathering Friday in Bloomington with key stakeholders and Sarah Strommen, the agency's commissioner, detailed an ambitious $118 million onetime request Gov. Tim Walz is seeking from the state's surplus to repair and replace aging boat accesses, fish hatcheries and other outdoor-recreation infrastructure.

The 400 attendees at the DNR Roundtable welcomed the news, though some noted similar proposals were made last year, with no money appropriated.

This legislative session, however, the DFL controls both the House and the Senate, and Minnesota's surplus has ballooned to more than $17 billion. So the ask from the state's general fund is expected to receive a warmer welcome than it did a year ago, when many Republicans were cool to the idea.

Multiple millions of additional dollars for outdoors projects and programs would be added to the $118 million if the governor's bonding proposal, due next week, is approved by the Legislature.

"Will the $118 million in addition to any money we get in bonding fix all of our problems?" Strommen asked rhetorically in an interview with the Star Tribune. "No, but the work will be transformational. It will make Minnesotans' outdoors experiences a little more modern, a little more vibrant.''

MN-FISH, a sportfishing advocacy group whose executive director is former DNR commissioner Mark Holsten, has pushed for an overhaul of the state's aging fish hatcheries and argued that many public water accesses are too cramped, lack docks and otherwise are out of step with modern boating uses.

Similar arguments have been made dating to the 1980s, when a commission appointed by Gov. Rudy Perpich found that while the state's economy benefits significantly from the hundreds of millions of dollars that hunters, anglers, campers, boaters and other outdoors users spend, the state too often fails to re-invest in the resources and infrastructure that support these activities.

Data circulated by the DNR Friday reported that outdoor recreation contributes nearly $10 billion annually to the state's economy and supports 91,000 jobs.

Yet some Minnesota fish hatcheries are more than a half-century old and "held together by baling wire," said Garry Leaf, a MN-FISH board member.

"The DNR operates four cold water and 11 cool and warm-water fish hatcheries,'' Holsten said. "Most of them date to the 1950s."

For the hatcheries specifically, Walz is requesting $35 million in one-time money and a similar amount for water accesses. In the bonding request to be unveiled next week, another $15 million will be sought for accesses and $25 million more for hatcheries.

Holsten, who in addition to serving as DNR commissioner is a former legislator, said objections to the funding bids are likely even in a DFL dominated Legislature.

"It'll be a bloodbath," Holsten said. "It won't necessarily be that so many legislators are against outdoors funding. Instead, they'll have their own priorities for spending, so there will be competition for the money."

In addition to the funds for hatcheries and water accesses, the $118 million request includes $5 million for drinking water and wastewater-system replacements at state campgrounds. Another $15 million would replace culverts and bridges, renovate lake- and river-water control structures, and remove or modify dams and restore habitat to enhance fish passage. And $28 million would increase access to state parks, recreation areas and wildlife management areas, improve parking lots and road accesses, and repair segments of damaged state trails.

Walz is also seeking about $32 million in one-time money for climate-change adaptation and about $97 million for water storage, grassland restoration and other projects administered by the Board of Water and Soil Resources.

Walz attended the Friday morning roundtable, saying his efforts to make Minnesota the best state in the nation for kids is linked to his outdoor funding requests.

"If our kids our doing well, our environment is doing well,'' Walz said. "If our environment is not doing well, it shows up with the children first.''

Strommen said the DNR's general appropriation budget will be released next week. For the two-year period ending June 30, the agency operated on $1.3 billion. That number will grow for the next biennium, Strommen said, due to inflation and other factors.

The commissioner also suggested that when the biannual DNR budget proposal is released next week, additional "robust'' funding requests will be included beyond what would be sought if the state didn't have such a large surplus.

Flush as the state is now with cash, Strommen noted Friday the DNR's long-term finances remain precarious. Baby boomers are aging out of outdoors activities and follow-on generations are smaller, with lower percentages of hunters, anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts.

The declines are projected to mean fewer license sales and less money for DNR staff and resource management.

Long-term funding possibilities floated last year by a citizens group appointed by Strommen included a state tax on outdoor gear and more money appropriated to the DNR from the general fund.

Asked if Minnesotans, and particularly the Legislature, have a finite capacity for funding conservation, including facilities maintenance and upgrades, Strommen said:

"What we're asking for with the one-time funding from the surplus is the ability to fix things that should have been fixed a generation ago, and not just put band-aids on these problems.

"We hope the money is approved. But it still won't fix our long-term funding issue."