Minnesota hunters, anglers and conservationists might not recognize Bill Becker’s name, but they are beginning to see his impact on wildlife habitat around the state.
Becker has been executive director of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which oversees spending millions of Legacy Amendment dollars for the outdoors, since its inception in 2009. He has been a key player in helping the council determine how to spend that taxpayer money.
So far, the council has recommended about $524 million in projects affecting nearly a half-million acres.
Now Becker is retiring, and the task of finding a successor has begun.
“He’s integral to every process that goes on [at the council],’’ said David Hartwell of Minneapolis, council chair. “He’s done a fabulous job. It won’t be easy to find a replacement.’’
If pay is an indicator of the importance of the position, consider this: Becker is paid about $107,000. Tom Landwehr, the Department of Natural Resources commissioner who oversees 2,700 full-time employees and an $890 million two-year budget, earns $119,000.
Becker, 65, of Minnetonka, will retire at the end of the year. He plans to do more hunting and fishing.
“It’s time to enjoy life,’’ he said.
A group of Lessard-Sams council members will review job applications. Ultimately, the full council will select Becker’s replacement.
“Our goal is to have someone by Sept. 1,’’ Hartwell said.
Garry Leaf of Bloomington is head of Sportsmen for Change, which pushed for passage of the constitutional amendment in 2008 dedicating three-eighths of 1 percent of the state sales tax to the outdoors. He said the hiring will be key to ensure Legacy Amendment dollars are spent as intended.
“I think it’s one of the most important decisions those council members will make,’’ Leaf said. “It’s a big deal. We would like someone with a strong hunting and angling background, and familiarity with the [conservation] programs out there.’’
And the person needs to be able to stand up to political pressure from legislators, he added. Already issues have arisen, including how to divide spending between the metro area and outstate Minnesota and whether some Outdoor Heritage dollars should go to parks.
“We’ll argue about that forever,’’ Becker said. “You have to have balance. I don’t know many hunters and anglers who don’t appreciate good habitat no matter where it’s at.’’
Another controversial issue is how much money to devote to the battle against aquatic invasive species, such as zebra mussels and Asian carp. Some fear that fight is a potential “black hole’’ that could consume too many Outdoor Heritage dollars.
“Absolutely,’’ Becker said.
But he said the threat is a huge challenge for the state, and some projects likely are worth funding.
“We would be derelict to stand by and not do something,’’ he said.
Another issue: How much money should be spent buying lands that are open to the public? Hunters and others cherish those areas, but some legislators have questioned adding to the state’s public land base.
“People don’t understand the palpable beauty in these wildlife management areas for someone who may just want to take a walk some spring afternoon,’’ Becker said. “This property is for everyone; you don’t need a gun.’’
Becker said those and other debates are healthy.
“There are differing opinions on how to invest public money,’’ he said. “It happens in conservation, it happens in education and it happens in highways. It’s a good process. It keeps people thinking. It may look like dysfunction or dispute from the outside, but when you are there, it’s a debate. That’s a healthy process.’’
Becker agreed his replacement needs to be multidimensional, a person who knows the Legacy Act and its intentions, and natural resource management.
“You need someone who understands hunting and fishing and wildlife — and the difference between ruffed grouse and sharp-tailed grouse,’’ he said. “And you need someone who understands if you manage for sharp-tailed grouse you’re also managing for the golden-winged warbler, too.’’
As for the future direction of the council, he said citizens who care how those dollars are spent need to remain engaged in the process. “Stand up and be counted,’’ he advised.
Meanwhile, Becker, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease last year, plans to hunt ducks and perhaps quail more often in retirement. He also plans to build a wood-Fiberglas Ozark-style johnboat so he can float on the Mississippi River in search of smallmouth bass.
“It’s a wonderful way to spend the day,’’ he said.