Four years ago, Tom Landwehr was chosen by Gov. Mark Dayton to be Department of Natural Resources commissioner, an appointment Dayton recently reaffirmed.
In the interview below, Landwehr discusses key conservation issues the DNR addressed in Dayton’s first term — some successfully, some not. Landwehr also expands in an accompanying story on what he says were his agency’s primary achievements during the past four years.
Readers with opinions about the DNR’s work under Landwehr and Dayton can send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org. A sample of comments will be published on this page in future editions of the Sunday Star Tribune.
Q What actions will the DNR take in the wake of the federal court ruling returning Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota wolves to the Endangered Species List?
A Only the federal government and the interveners can appeal the decision. We’ve talked to the Fish and Wildlife Service, but they haven’t decided whether they’ll appeal. It’s up to them and the Department of Justice.
Most important from our viewpoint is to gauge our congressional delegation’s sentiments on possible congressional action. We also have to work with Congress and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to re-establish the federal government’s wolf depredation control program in Minnesota, which ended after delisting. As it stands, landowners can’t deal with problem wolves even if they’re killing livestock.
Q Regarding deer, some hunters want the DNR’s whitetail management program reviewed by the Legislature, as Wisconsin’s was, which led to big changes in that state.
A I haven’t heard from any legislators who want to do that. Deer numbers are down in Minnesota because five years ago citizen goal-management teams decided to reduce the herd. And the past two winters have been hard on deer.
Q In your opinion, how large should Minnesota’s deer herd be?
A The current citizen goal-setting process will establish deer density by permit areas. Which is OK. But I’d also like to see it approached another way. Statewide, what should our harvest be? If the 130,000 we harvested this year is too low, and the 210,000 of a few years back is too high, what should it be? … I think somewhere between the two. Maybe something around 180,000 is a middle ground for average harvest.
Q What did you take away from the recent Pheasant Summit, and what DNR actions can be expected in response?
A There were no surprises at the summit. Pheasant hunters know our problem with pheasants is a lack of habitat, grass and wetlands. We need to take the energy from the summit, and the governor’s interest in the issue, and turn these into a short-term action pan.
Q What’s the plan?
A Citizens attending the summit said they want better enforcement of roadside and riparian buffer laws, and to make sure more private lands programs are available. There has been attention to these in the past. But that attention has diminished, and now is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of that.
We’re doing an analysis of buffer and ditch programs in Otter Tail and Olmsted counties in particular to see what’s working there and try to replicate it. But in the end, the DNR has almost no authority to enforce riparian buffer laws. Counties do that, so we need to work with them.
Q But the DNR sets state shore land rules.
A Yes, but we have limited authority to enforce. We have to lean on the counties to do it.
Q Does the governor have an interest in clarifying these laws so they can be better enforced?
A He agrees existing laws must be enforced, and if they’re not, changes should be made. He believes the multiple authorities are confusing, so we’ll look to clarify requirements and improve implementation. But keep in mind, violations in these areas are pursued [at the discretion of] county attorneys.
Q Some summit attendees considered state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson defiant of the DNR’s position regarding riparian buffers, and defiant also of the governor he works for.
A Well, [Frederickson] said if we’re not enforcing ditch and riparian laws, we should consider abandoning them. I can’t explain why he said that.
Q When you became DNR commissioner, you set a four-year timetable to get certain things done. Clearly, however, some issues have grown worse in that time, such as farmland conservation.
A It is worse. There’s no way to sugarcoat that. Since the mid-’90s, when we started losing CRP, the trend has been down and the future is pretty bleak. If we want to reclaim some of the lost habitat, we will have to put a lot of money into it. We have the programs to do it. But it would be extraordinarily expensive and would take a long time.
Q Improved farmland conservation was your main goal four years ago?
A It has been a priority and a great frustration. We just don’t get any traction. In forest conservation and management, we’ve had major successes, and also with water issues.
I would also say — though this won’t get much empathy from most people — the DNR itself is in better shape now than four years ago. The department was in pretty tough shape when we started. Our 2,700 employees do the bulk of the state’s conservation work, and unless we have a healthy, engaged workforce, it won’t get done the way it should.
Q Many observers would argue the way the DNR and other state agencies manage resources, or some resources, isn’t working, and a new conservation delivery model should be developed.
A DNR and MPCA [the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] manage public resources. The Board of Water and Soil Resources [BWSR] is the primary agency to deliver conservation on private lands. This is by design. Would, for example, integrating BWSR with DNR make things better? I’m not convinced it would.
Q But if it’s not working, shouldn’t we do something else?
A It depends who you’re asking. If you asked the Farm Bureau, they’d say things are looking really good. But the trend for conservation is down and getting worse, so we’d like to see changes. Yet it can’t be entirely one or the other. We need a healthy farm economy and a healthy ag-land environment. If every piece of land we have is farmed intensively in the southern and western parts of the state, rural towns will continue to dry up. Kids will have no reason to stay. There needs to be a balance.
Q Mille Lacs is also worse off now than four years ago.
A Sometimes people make up their minds before they see the evidence. At Mille Lacs, there is a bunch of data that says walleye young-of-the-year aren’t surviving. That’s not a function of Chippewa nets, for example. But if you’ve already made up your minds about the nets, we’re not going to convince you otherwise.
So we’re trying to do a better job of informing people about the actual dynamics at Mille Lacs. The bad news is we don’t really know why young walleyes aren’t surviving. The good news is the lake does have a strong 2012 year class.
Q Has the DNR under your leadership ever proposed to the Chippewa a different Mille Lacs strategy?
A I’ve talked to the Mille Lacs band, but no alternatives evolved. It’s not that they’re not interested. There are six Wisconsin bands that also would need to agree, and we don’t have much influence over them. Again, if the biology doesn’t suggest the nets are a problem, we don’t have much to go on.
Q You don’t think the nets have contributed to a shortage of young Mille Lacs male walleyes?
A Young males are declining. But anglers take three times as many of these as the nets. From the standpoint of the overall health of the population, it’s really the breeding females that are important. And our biologists say the female walleyes are still there.
Q What’s your overall assessment of the state’s fisheries and wildlife?
A I think from the viewpoint of the Average Joe hunter and angler, we have an exceptional story to tell. We have problems. But by and large, things are going quite well.
Q How do you divide your time among the DNR’s responsibilities, from parks and trails, for example, to mining, hunting, fishing and other areas?
A Hunting and fishing issues take about a fifth of my time. Then there are ecological resources, mining, pipelines, transmission lines, silica sand mining, Asian carp, groundwater issues, agriculture irrigation, aquatic invasive species, school trust lands and loss of pinelands to potato farms. Also we have long-term concerns with forest management, we’re 20 officers short in enforcement and our budgets for parks and trails are a concern, as are other budgets.
Q Given the rapid urbanization of Minnesota, the many conservation challenges the state faces and what appears to be a widespread indifference among many residents to conservation, wouldn’t it be a good idea for you as DNR commissioner to “cheerlead,’’ in effect, a conservation message statewide in an attempt to change attitudes about natural resource stewardship?
A I think there are serious limitations on me doing that. We try to do it in the [DNR’s] Volunteer [magazine] and in occasional commentaries in [the weekly] Outdoor News. But I’m sort of limited on that. Also, what’s the proper role of the department in that type of education? Certainly we could do more, provided we had a lot more resources.
One goal I have in the next four years is to connect more urban Minnesotans with the outdoors. Otherwise, they’ll never grow up to be conservationists.
In the end, it’s the outdoor writers and those in the media who influence what people think. I don’t have that type of platform.
Q Do you like your job?
A I like what the agency does, and what it gets done. It’s extremely challenging and very consuming. In the last four years, my skin has gotten thicker, and my need to get outdoors has grown significantly.