Sarah Strommen stands proudly in a small fishing boat, a grin on her face, holding the biggest walleye of the day in her outstretched hands.
The folksy photograph, taken under an overcast sky at last year’s governor’s fishing opener, belies Strommen’s heavyweight résumé, which includes a master’s degree from Duke, a Fulbright scholarship, and leadership roles with a handful of the state’s most prominent conservation groups.
But it also helps explain why Gov. Tim Walz chose the lifelong angler as his commissioner for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). It’s a hot-seat job that requires a deep understanding of Minnesota’s passions, and she arrives at a time of testing for the state — a changing climate that could force new restrictions on walleye fishing and the looming prospect of copper mining at the doorstep of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
People who have worked with Strommen say she can handle the pressure.
“She’s so approachable,” said John LeTourneau, who served with Strommen for five years on the City Council in Ramsey, a north metro suburb.
As Ramsey’s two-term mayor, LeTourneau said, Strommen was masterful at getting feedback from all sides of the battles that come before a City Council — such as the time a gun range wanted to open next door to a day-care center. Thousands of e-mails poured in from all over the country, LeTourneau said, but Strommen made sure everyone felt they were heard and got the two businesses talking to each other.
“It turned out that having a day care nearby is a great supporting business — for parents who want to go in and use the shooting range,” LeTourneau said.
Strommen, 46, is the first woman to be appointed Minnesota’s DNR commissioner. She had been assistant commissioner for several years under former head Tom Landwehr, overseeing the department’s parks and trails division.
She’s fully aware of the tempests that can blow up over deer hunting or a timber harvest, and her plan is to involve stakeholders and the public early in decisions, so they can be confident they will be heard. To do that, she said, she and her staff will have to meet people under their terms and in their towns, and not necessarily rely on everyone knowing how to step up to a microphone at a public hearing.
Last month, for example, Strommen was in Brainerd to talk to a group of about 20 anglers, boaters, deer hunters, members of lake associations and nonprofits. They planned to discuss Walz’s proposal for higher boat registration fees and a surcharge to fund the war against invasive carp and damaging zebra mussels. The surcharge would also bring back state cost-sharing grants, eliminated years ago during budget cuts, which allow cities and lake associations to target their own areas for invasives and split the cost with the DNR.
The conversation turned to the fact that boats are getting bigger and bigger, overwhelming launch sites and causing long wait times at ramps. If the DNR increases inspections to make sure boats are being properly washed down, it must also make sure people have enough space — whether it’s increasing parking or adding lanes where boats can move off to the side to be hosed down, some argued.
In her first two months on the job, Strommen has also visited Alexandria, Willmar, Rochester and Grand Rapids, among other cities, to lead these small talks about invasives and chronic wasting disease in the deer herd.
“I am a people person, but I am not an extrovert,” she said. “I’ve gotten good at pretending to be one, but I think that’s why I’m more of a listener and am more comfortable in conversation than talking at people.”
Bass or walleye?
Strommen grew up in St. Paul, biking along the Mississippi River to state parks like Fort Snelling and William O’Brien. She learned to fish and water ski on a lake near Park Rapids, where her family would spend a week every summer.
Today she lives in Plymouth with her husband and their 13-year-old son. They have a cabin on Leech Lake and, since their son is in a youth bass fishing club, they’ve focused more on bass fishing but will go for walleye and perch, too.
Strommen studied biology at Grinnell College in Iowa and later got a master’s in environmental management from Duke University.
With her background in the sciences, she said, she never planned to get into local politics. But she attended a Ramsey City Council meeting because of a new development proposed for her neighborhood and got the impression that council members were already so solidly decided that they weren’t listening to the neighbors, or even to the issues that the developers were bringing up.
She served several terms on the City Council, then two terms as mayor. She left the job in May, when her family moved to Plymouth.
There may be no more volatile issue before her agency than mining, with two multinational companies, PolyMet Mining and Twin Metals Minnesota, proposing controversial copper-nickel operations near Minnesota’s Iron Range.
Strommen is no stranger to the weighty issues. In the early 2000s, she worked as policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, which has over the past several years fought the DNR’s permitting of PolyMet. The group is now calling for the agency to revisit that permit, especially its “financial assurance” provision, which it argues doesn’t force PolyMet to put up enough money to protect the state from huge potential cleanup costs if the mine were to go out of business.
Strommen said she has no plans to revisit permitting decisions, saying she trusts the DNR’s process as “robust” and based on science as well as the law.
Mining companies and associations welcomed Strommen’s appointment, saying they know her to be competent and trust her to be objective.
Brad Moore, an executive vice president at PolyMet, said he has known and worked with Strommen for years and that she has always been “fair and thoughtful.”
Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, said both she and the governor have made it clear that they will follow the appropriate processes to review mining proposals.
“Everything I’ve seen from her is she’s a quality person and a solid appointment by the governor,” Ongaro said.
After working at Friends of the Boundary Waters, Strommen became an associate director of the Minnesota Land Trust, a nonprofit that helps landowners and cities protect and restore natural habitat. Before starting at the DNR in 2015, she served as acting deputy director for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. She also served on the board of Friends of the Mississippi River, a prominent environmental group.
“She’s a pro with a ton of integrity who understands the resources we’re dealing with,” said Whitney Clark, executive director Friends of the Mississippi River.
While some observers were surprised that Walz rejected Landwehr in favor of Strommen, Clark said it’s no surprise that a new governor would want a fresh start for one of the highest-profile positions in Minnesota government. “It’s just a position where you pick up a lot of barnacles,” he said.
Strommen said she never aimed specifically to get the commissioner job. She said her goals have been to get people more involved in decisions, and to get people connected with the outdoors.
“The DNR commissioner role is a great spot from which to do that work,” she said.