Appointed Department of Natural Resources commissioner in 2019 by Gov. Tim Walz, Sarah Strommen is the first woman to lead the conservation agency. In the interview below Strommen, now reappointed by Walz, looks back at recent conservation successes and also at challenges that lie ahead. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Did Gov. Walz call you into his office to let you know you were being reappointed and what he wanted you to do in the next four years?
A: We had an informal conversation. One of the governor’s goals for example is to ensure Minnesota is the best state for kids to grow up. In our conversation, I also discussed what’s on my plate.
Q: Which is …?
A: The top item is continuing our work to ensure the future of conservation and outdoor recreation funding. The citizens group we put together in recent years developed a four-pronged plan. Some of these ideas we hope to implement within a year or so. Others will take time. There is no single solution.
Q: What’s the first step?
A: Optimizing the funding we have, en route to achieving at the end of four years a more stable source of funding, when perhaps a larger portion of our budget will come from the General Fund. Another idea is to implement a state excise tax on outdoor gear.
Q: Future conservation funding is a challenge because projections show a decline in hunting and fishing participation. Won’t that falloff be accelerated if you raise license fees, as some have suggested? Or, as another example, increase state park fees?
A: We don’t want to get to a point where we price people out of the outdoors.
Q: Can the DNR get by with fewer employees?
A: We’ve taken a number of staffing efficiency actions to ensure we aren’t over-staffed. Take a look at our conservation officers. The state hasn’t gotten any smaller, yet we have fewer officers patrolling now than we did years ago.
Q: Is your leadership team staying intact?
A: Yes, and I’m proud of the work they do. They’re dedicated to the agency and its mission.
Q Is the DNR having success recruiting more people to outdoors activities, including hunting and fishing? Or have those efforts stalled?
A: Connecting people to the outdoors is a personal priority of mine. There’s clearly an educational benefit to being active outdoors, not only to individuals but to communities and the state.
Q: What did the DNR accomplish in the past four years?
A: We’ve had many conservation successes. We’ve seen native mussels return to the St. Croix, and wildlife flourish anew in the St. Louis River estuary. Marsh Lake has been restored. We’ve celebrated these and many other individual projects, The work demonstrates resilience, hopefulness and the longtime dedication of DNR staff and our many partners.
Q: Hunting and fishing and the sale of hunting and fishing licenses are the backbones of DNR funding. Is the DNR improving conditions for hunters and anglers to encourage more participation?
A: In some cases the opportunities for fishing and hunting are better now than they were four years ago, and in other cases, maybe not. The introduction of sturgeon to the St. Louis River has been a success. So, too, the removal of dams from rivers to create fish and other aquatic habitat and return the free-flow of water. I also can point to a number of habitat successes for ducks, and we’ve provided more outdoor opportunities for people of varying physical abilities Chronic wasting, unfortunately, is in a worse place now than four years ago. I remain committed to get in front of it.
Q: The DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently resolved conflicts over timber harvesting on state wildlife management areas (WMAs). At issue was whether, as required, cuttings were being approved on the areas primarily to benefit wildlife, or if, instead, as some DNR wildlife managers have alleged, DNR foresters have decided which timber to cut in an attempt to appease timber producers.
A: The steps we outlined in our agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service underscore our commitment to manage WMAs for wildlife — all of them, not just the major WMAs. We also will move forward with development of plans for our WMAs. We will have an opportunity to train with the Service regarding timber management and other policies governing WMAs, which of course are lands largely purchased with money generated by hunters and anglers.
Q: Do you consider it an embarrassment that the DNR’s agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service calls for DNR foresters and others to be trained in the laws and regulations that govern WMA timber management?
A: I wouldn’t say it that way. It’s not only DNR staff that will be training, but working with Fish and Wildlife Service staff so everyone knows and is responsible for the requirements that govern timber harvesting on WMAs.
Q: A few years ago, after the Sustainable Timber Harvesting initiative was developed, a large number of DNR wildlife managers wrote to you to complain that their ability to manage WMAs for wildlife has been subjugated to the timber industry’s wishes. In retrospect, were their complaints justified?
A: I think there continue to be misunderstandings about what the Sustainable Timber Harvesting initiative is. I think the steps we have taken will help clarify some of those misunderstandings.
Q: Certainly, there’s no misunderstanding that WMAs were purchased largely with hunters’ money and that by law they are to be managed primarily to benefit wildlife.
A: Yes, and we are very committed to that.
Q: Does that mean wildlife managers will have primary control over the size and species of WMA timber cuts, or will DNR foresters have primary control?
A: For every management activity on a WMA there needs to be a wildlife purpose.
Q: But can a WMA wildlife manager’s decision be overridden by DNR forestry?
A: As I’ve said, we don’t have plans for all of our WMAs, but we will. These plans will have goals and strategies, and the individual, specific management actions on the ground need to be in concert with the plans. So, is it forestry? Is it wildlife? It will be all of those things.
Q: OK, but regardless of WMA plans, timber cutting by law must be done on WMAs primarily to benefit wildlife, not a timber-harvesting goal.
A: With our agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service we have reaffirmed our commitment that we are on the same page with the Service on WMA management and timber harvesting.
Q: Final question: With the huge state surplus, do you expect the DNR to receive one-time funding to fix up fish hatcheries, state parks and other DNR facilities in need of repair?
A: Minnesota has a tremendous opportunity to make these one-time investments for the outdoors. It’s time we do it, and I hope the Legislature agrees.