Although the agency's vociferous critics wouldn't agree, there were good intentions behind the state Department of Natural Resource's controversial move to open up a very small slice of Minnesota's vast public lands for hunting and other recreational uses.
But it takes more than good intentions to create good policy. The agency's laudable goal was to increase public support for the little-known Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) — particularly financial support from Legacy Amendment dollars — by expanding recreational uses at some of them. But in doing so, DNR officials entrusted with managing the state's treasured natural heritage missed a broader truth.
If support is lacking, it's not the SNAs that need to change. It's Minnesotans who need to do so. Making sure that these areas — set aside as living museums to showcase and protect natural gems — have the support needed to safeguard them for future generations ought to be a goal widely shared by the public and policymakers. The same holds true for adding to SNA acreage.
Minnesota has 160 SNAs totaling 189,100 acres stretching from the state's southern prairies to its Canadian border. SNAs have been around since the 1970s. The idea behind their founding is still a noble one: to "preserve natural features and rare resources of exceptional scientific and educational value" by setting them aside for hiking, nature observation and education, but limiting "intensive recreational activities."
Those who visit face restrictions to ensure that the human footprint is as light as possible. Depending on the SNA, visitors may not be able to bring pets, camp, picnic, pick berries, or collect fossils or plant specimens. Hunting and trapping is already allowed at some SNAs, but not at others. Amenities such as restrooms or developed trails may also not be available.
For that reason, SNAs don't have as high a public profile as Minnesota's beloved state parks, where there are generally more niceties and fewer restrictions. But perceptions that SNAs are locked away are off base.
These areas can still be enjoyed — just in a different and quieter way. That's not a bad thing. For many Minnesotans, that is actually a reason to visit SNAs. The agency charged with managing public lands ought to more fully appreciate that it serves a broad spectrum of Minnesotans. Not all are hunters and anglers (who are well-served by broad access to the state's 1.29 million acres of habitat in wildlife management areas).
Nor does everyone want the busy state park experience.
Having a small slice of the nearly 12 million acres of state- or federally owned lands set aside to serve Minnesotans who desire a quieter experience is reasonable. That this also serves the goal of protecting rare species makes this approach even more sensible.
Nor should state officials give short shrift to the notion that there should be a place within public land portfolios for places less trammeled or even untrammeled. How many visitors is not the only metric by which public lands' value should be measured.
That's something that Minnesotans understand on a deep level. Linking perceived support for SNAs to expanded use seriously underestimates the public's grasp of this.
The DNR's move to open up more SNAs to hunting and other recreational uses didn't give constituencies a chance to rally support for SNAs. Perhaps better outreach and advocacy could create the support the DNR believes it needs to sustain and add to the SNA program. It's also unclear what other avenues were explored before launching the programmatic change.
Ten SNA sites are currently under review for additional recreational uses, with DNR scientists making recommendations on which SNAs could have expanded activities without harming the sites. Three more SNAs were "quietly approved" for hunting starting in 2012, according to a June 23 Star Tribune story.
The DNR has held local public hearings on the changes, but many Minnesotans were unaware of the proposals until the newspaper's story. For that reason, putting SNA changes on hold and having a more public debate unfold at the Legislature is wise. There are already lawmakers more than willing to take this on. The mostly negative feedback from some public hearings, as well as cautions from retired DNR employees, underscores the value of further public exploration.
There also seems to be high-level disagreement on whether the use of Legacy Amendment funds, if used to acquire SNAs, requires hunting access. That question needs to be cleared up quickly. If that's not the case, then SNAs should not be at the competitive disadvantage for these funds as the DNR contends. That said, SNAs would still face head winds from the powerful hunting and fishing special interests that dominate Legacy funds spending recommendations. But it's that resistance, not SNAs, that needs to evolve.