Grassroots lobbying by hunters, anglers, campers and trail riders swayed the 2017 Minnesota Legislature to change course on key funding and policy issues in a rally that’s being cheered by Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr.
Lawmakers in St. Paul initially ignored, bashed or counterattacked the DNR’s agenda this year, but a public outcry turned the tables, Landwehr said. The agency ultimately achieved its primary goals of raising user fees, defending the state’s environmental buffer strip law and blocking proposals that sought to stop the DNR from adding to its holdings of public lands.
“Given where we started … it was a huge victory,” Landwehr said in an interview. “It could have been a completely different outcome.”
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, a committee chairman who helped unify proposals from the Senate, House and Gov. Mark Dayton, said there would have been no action on the DNR’s central request for fee increases if outdoors enthusiasts had not spoken up.
“I know the House wasn’t up for it,” Ingebrigtsen said. “But then we heard from people.”
Ingebrigtsen, chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee said he was pleased with what got done even though the DNR was snubbed on its request for $35 million in bonding money for seriously deferred maintenance on 2,700 public buildings and trails around the state. The approved allotment was $15 million.
“Hopefully we can put together a lot [of bonding dollars] next year,” Ingebrigtsen said.
Landwehr said Tuesday’s signing of the DNR budget bill will raise the agency’s revenues by 15 percent, mostly by hiking fees for hunting, fishing, snowmobile and ATV registration and state park visits. It should allow the agency to maintain its status quo on fish and wildlife management, park operations and other core missions before inflation eats up the funding increase in another five or six years.
The price of a deer-hunting license will rise to $34, from $30. Nonresidents will pay $185 to hunt deer, up from $165. Fishing licenses for state residents will increase $3, to $25. For nonresidents, the increase will be $6, to $51. All hunting and fishing increases start March 1, 2018.
Motorized recreation fees and state park permit fees go up next month. Effective July 1, three-year registration for a snowmobile will cost $105, up from $75. A yearly state park sticker will jump to $35, from $25. A daily park pass goes to $7, up from $5.
Higher watercraft registration fees, including a surcharge to help fight aquatic invasive species, were proposed by not approved.
Landwehr and Ingebrigtsen both said the linchpin to passing the budget bill was overcoming a standoff with farmers over the state’s new buffer law. Spearheaded by Dayton, it requires farmers to plant perennial vegetation along public waterways, including ditches, to stop an epidemic of run-off pollution.
Ingebrigsten said lots of legislators weren’t going to vote for the DNR’s fee increases unless the clean-water restrictions were eased. But he said Dayton held firm and achieved a settlement by making temporary hardship exceptions and making some compensation available for taking tillable acres out of production.
“The governor wasn’t going to move and we got to a point of reason on this and that’s how it got done,” Ingebrigsten said.
The DNR received valuable support for higher license fees from the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. But the groups wanted and received better earmarking for funds derived from deer tags. Landwehr said the DNR is committed to introducing statutory language next year to tie deer license money to a dedicated account for deer management.
Here’s how the DNR landed on other game and fish issues:
Land acquisition. Some Republicans proposed language that would have stopped the DNR from acquiring new land for preservation and recreation, without selling an equal amount of existing land. But in every case, “no-new-public-lands” clauses were stricken.
Legacy Funds. The Legislature approved this year’s Legacy Amendment bill without substantially changing projects recommended for funding by an advisory committee of citizens and legislators. But the DNR was disappointed to see $22 million appropriated from the Legacy Amendment’s Clean Water Fund — instead of the state general fund — to help pay for buffer strip implementation.
Lead shot. The DNR and governor have wanted to ban the use of it in favor of non-toxic ammunition on certain state hunting lands. Many legislators who oppose the shift convinced the DNR to accept a two-year moratorium on making rules against lead shot. Meanwhile, researchers will study environmental damage.
Timber sales. Legislature gave strong support for increased timber production, a step favorable to habitat for grouse and deer.
Shiner minnows. The DNR won a reprieve against the proposed importation of shiner minnows from Arkansas, and agreed to study what could be done to make the practice safe. DNR specialists fear that shiner imports could open a new path for zebra mussels and other aquatic invasive species.
Also, scopes will be allowed on muzzleloaders, and blaze pink was approved as a high-visibility color for hunting.