The question in St. Paul on Saturday morning, when the Department of Natural Resources wrapped up its annual roundtable or stakeholder meetings, wasn't whether the agency's staff is smart enough or well-intended enough, or whether the few hundred attendees were passionate enough about the state's woods, waters and fields.

Uniformly, those can be answered in the affirmative.

The question instead was whether the two factions can make significant headway while addressing the state's major conservation challenges, among them restoring the 1.4 million acres of wetlands and grasslands lost in the state in the past four years.

Here the answer is less obvious, notwithstanding deputy DNR commissioner Dave Schad's summation late Saturday morning of the two-day meetings.

"I can assure you," Schad said, "that the conservation delivery system that we've developed is without peer in the country. There's no other place that does this as well as Minnesota."

That fish and wildlife professionals in other states would disagree is a given. But even this misses the point, because confidence that one conservation delivery system is better than another, or less bad than another, if neither has a reasonable chance in a reasonable period of time of besting the big challenges before it, is confidence misplaced.

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A person can attend the DNR roundtable, fill up nearly to the point of exhaustion on information about walleyes and wolves, deer and ducks -- and still leave feeling empty.

Because the elephant in the room isn't addressed.

Yes, the attendee soon appreciates, the DNR can enforce fish and wildlife laws and do it well. It also can research and manage individual |species superbly, and regulate the taking of fish and game.

And its people are smart.

Which for much of this state's history was good enough. When resources were abundant and their sustainable utilization relatively manageable, fish and wildlife professionals and a cadre of enforcement agents fit the bill.

But for decades, Minnesota has been beset by a different suite of conservation problems, many the result of industrial farming, development and a growing population.

Fish and wildlife professionals are needed here. Their science is the bedrock of reasoned responses.

But picking away at the margins of these politically complicated and sociologically far-reaching problems by tweaking regulations or hoping the citizenry will finally wise up to land and water stewardship is pure fantasy -- sustained in no small part by the co-dependent tomfoolery that often bonds the DNR to its constituency, some of it on display at the roundtable.

In the first place:

Why are we asking fish and wildlife professionals to formulate large-scale responses to large-scale modern-day natural resource problems, when those responses, necessarily, depend on motivation of the general populace?

Put another way, and underscoring the folly of the matter:

3M makes great products based on complex science. But it doesn't allow its engineers to market its wares to the public.

Marketers and related professionals do that work, employing science no less credible than that which underpins fish and wildlife management.

It's long past the time that the DNR should take a similar tack, employing as it does two of its key strengths: its science and its ability to organize its stakeholders to work toward a common goal.

A suggestion:

Begin a multi-county pilot program in the southwest, west-central or another part of the state, where the DNR's primary role would be to organize a consortium of concerned groups (Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, etc.) and government units (soil and water conservation districts, etc.) toward common conservation goals, based on the region's consensus hierarchy of land and water challenges.

The intent would be to effect and market conservation by growing organically on a relatively local scale (through media reports and personal relationships) a land and water ethic that leverages Minnesotans' vast storehouse of conservation goodwill -- a storehouse that today is virtually untapped.

Schad's a good guy, as is his boss, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. Ditto the state's kingpin, Gov. Mark Dayton, who has a keen interest in this stuff.

But they aren't conservation magicians, and they alone can't solve our big problems.

Everyone has to join in.

But without motivation -- being marketed to -- few will.

Dennis Anderson