Saturday when the Minnesota pheasant season begins at 9 a.m., one hunter will be more deserving of drawing a bead on a fast-departing rooster than any other: Gov. Mark Dayton.
The originator in 2011 of the Governor’s Pheasant Opener, Dayton will be in Luverne to participate in an event that during his two terms as Minnesota’s chief executive has evolved into a sort of metaphor for a state and a citizenry attempting to sustain an important natural resource, and an even more important tradition.
In the seven opening-day ringneck celebrations the governor has hosted, nary a shot has been discharged from his over-and-under 12 gauge. Hobbled in recent years, and still today, by a bad back, that record might remain intact next weekend. Still, the governor will be on hand, comfortable as he always is outdoors and in the company of everyday Minnesotans.
In a nation whose citizens are starkly divided even by their choices of cable news networks, there’s little surprise Dayton has both supporters and critics. Even the latter, however should agree this governor has surpassed most if not all others who have held his office, measured by achievements in conservation and environmental protection.
Consider these numbers tallied by Dayton’s agency honchos:
• 43,500: Acreage added to state Wildlife Management Areas since 2011, when Dayton became governor.
• 385,351: Minnesota cropland acres enrolled by 615 farmers in the state’s voluntary Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, which began in 2013.
• 38: Trout-stream easement miles acquired by the state since 2011.
• 26: Percentage increase in annual overnight campers in Minnesota state parks between 2011 and 2017 — from 286,000 to 360,000. Additionally, annual state park permit sales have increased 37 percent during the period.
• 58.3 million: Twin Cities regional park visits in 2017, up about 25 percent since 2011 and fueled in part by 2,244 acres added to these parks since 2011.
• 21,700: Number of Minnesotans who attended Department of Natural Resources “I Can Fish’’ programs designed to show people new to outdoor activities how to participate. Another 15,000 residents signed up for similar introductory programs on rock climbing, mountain biking and paddling.
• 13: Shallow-water lakes since 2011 designated as Migratory Waterfowl Feeding and Resting Areas, totalling 3,435 acres. Also, water control structures have been added to 21 existing Feeding and Resting Areas covering 14,000 acres.
• 26,700: Acreage added to Minnesota’s Walk-in Access program, granting permitted hunters and others permission to enter private land.
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Dayton readily shares credit for these and other accomplishments with conservationists inside and outside his administration. But it remains true that on critical land and water issues, he has led from the front, without undue consideration of politics.
Take Mille Lacs.
Unresolvable as that lake’s walleye-harvest co-management by the state and eight Chippewa bands might be, Dayton nonetheless made repeated attempts to listen to, and help, local residents. As important, he prodded the DNR, the Legislature and the bands to do something — anything — to improve both the Mille Lacs fishery and the people whose lives, livelihoods and recreation depend on it.
Consider also Minnesota’s first-ever Pheasant Summit.
Held in 2014 at Dayton’s recommendation (not, notably, the DNR’s), the event for the first time signaled to conservationists that, at long last, a Minnesota governor was concerned about farmland conservation.
Finally, consider also the sulfide mine proposed by Twin Metals Minnesota (which Dayton opposes because of its threat to the Boundary Waters); frac sand mining (Dayton proposed a moratorium); a Legislature-approved bill that would have weakened the state’s sulfate standard (Dayton vetoed it), and clean water (Dayton set a goal of improving Minnesota’s water quality 25 percent by 2025).
Which brings us to waterway buffers.
Opposed vehemently by some farmers who argue they lose money when converting cropland to the required grass strips (in many cases, conservation funds replace part or all of the income), buffers proposed by Dayton are nonetheless already in place on the majority of required waterways.
What’s more, as Minnesota and the nation continue to focus on the precious-metal-like value of water, buffers and other water-protection efforts will become the norm, not the exception.
In an interview last week, Dayton said, “The natural resources we inherit from our fathers and mothers are our sacred responsibility to protect and enhance for future generations.’’
As a conservation-minded governor, Dayton has been an outlier. We might not see another like him any time soon.
What’s more, as the governor noted, pressure will continue to mount on the state’s resources, if only due to human population increases.
Safeguarding those resources depends, Dayton said, on the continued vigilance of everyday people — like those he’ll be with Saturday in Luverne.
“It’s a silent majority,’’ he said of Minnesotans who care about the state’s lands and waters. “But it’s an overwhelming majority.’’