In August 2018, then-candidates for governor Tim Walz and Jeff Johnson appeared at Game Fair in Ramsey to woo the backing of hunters and anglers, without whose support Minnesota politicians rarely win, or retain for long, statewide office.
Having witnessed firsthand over generations the decline of the state’s natural resources, from grasslands to wetlands to clean water, and having suffered more than most Minnesotans the resultant wildlife declines, particularly those of ducks, pheasants, ruffed grouse, bobwhite quail and gray partridge, but also meadowlarks, bobolinks and other songbirds, sporting types of the kind that frequent Game Fair are ever-alert for the tall tales of hope and recovery that politician-windbags often bandy about while stumping for office.
Their skepticism, nay cynicism, is well-founded, because while land, water and wildlife reclamation are often promised, they’re rarely undertaken and even more rarely achieved.
So it was on this day, as Walz and Johnson vied for the support of a key constituency, Walz was clearly the more comfortable evoking an Andy of Mayberry persona that suggested he, too, like the ball-capped faces staring back at him, was just another hook-and-bullet guy, and a conservationist, to boot.
“Walz will win,” a longtime wildlife advocate and lobbyist whispered as the Game Fair crowd dispersed. “He’s too slick not to. The question is whether he actually gets it. Or whether he’s just another politician.”
More than a few observers were reminded of this Sunday when a Star Tribune update of Walz entering his sophomore year in the statehouse quoted him pitching his “One Minnesota” poppycock to Waseca, Minn., high schoolers.
“You can’t divide Minnetonka from Mankato. You can’t divide Waseca from Warroad. That our — the state, our nearly 6 million people — are intricately tied around industries like agriculture, mining, forestry, health care, high tech, manufacturing …”
However much the governor’s handlers will argue that elsewhere on that day, or on a previous day — or, we promise, on a future day! — Walz has rambled on sonorously, and sincerely, and to thunderous applause, about the beauty of Minnesota’s North Woods and the majesty of the Mississippi as it oxbows southward from Lake Itasca, the truth is, a year into his governorship, the state’s chief executive is considered by many land, water and wildlife advocates to be a laggard.
Not yet a lost cause. But a laggard.
Perhaps we should have seen it coming.
In his dozen years in Congress, despite Walz’s claim to be a sportsmen’s champion, neither he nor his staff contacted anyone from the Nicollet Conservation Club, a stalwart resource guardian that lay square in Walz’s district, to inquire about their concerns or priorities.
“Not until he started running for governor, then a staff guy called us,” a club officer said.
Then there was the 29-member conservation board Walz summoned to action after his election to advise him on the selection of a Department of Natural Resources commissioner.
Serving on this august council were corn growers, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the Prairie Island Indian Community, a rabbi and even the mayor of Fergus Falls. But no one from Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, Trout Unlimited, Muskies Inc., or the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance.
Still, when he took office a year ago, there remained some hope Walz would attempt to at least mimic the much-appreciated emphasis his predecessor, Mark Dayton, placed on conservation.
Dayton knew that, notwithstanding the state’s residents being “intricately tied around industries like agriculture, mining, forestry, health care, high tech, manufacturing,” as Walz suggested in Waseca, the fact is, Minnesota’s quality of life is defined not primarily by its occupational opportunities, but by its recreational opportunities, including hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, paddling, boating and camping, all of which depend on perpetual stewardship of the state’s woods, waters and fields.
Yet there was Walz, in February a year ago, barely a month in office, and instead of gathering support, as he said he would, for improved management of southern Minnesota roadsides — some of the last best places in that part of the state for bees and other pollinators, and for nesting birds — or, as he also said he would, proposing to reconfigure the state’s clean water council, or, as he also said he would, brainstorming ways to establish a citizens conservation council to oversee the DNR, the state’s head honcho was being knighted chair of the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition, a group whose goal is to grow more corn and other crops at the expense of grasslands and other habitats.
Conservationists get it. Everyone does. Ethanol isn’t going away. Neither, in Walz’s “One Minnesota,” is rampant pesticide use, nitrate poisoning of well water or the willy-nilly blacktopping of the 16-county metro.
Yet, confronted with these and other never-abating threats, the fear is Walz, however nice a guy he might be, and however folksy, doesn’t “get it” regarding conservation.
A hint here: Maintaining Minnesota’s lakes, rivers and lands is a contact sport, and has been since statehood. In Murray County alone, by 1920, some 40,000 wetlands had been drained.
Similar and even grander losses have occurred in the years since.
Nowhere is it foretold that resource degradation must continue indefinitely in Minnesota.
But to prevent it, leaders bear a special burden.
A laggard so far, the hope is Walz doesn’t become a lost cause.