DNR faces staffing, funding unknowns

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • December 8, 2012 - 4:51 PM

In the interview below, Department of Natural Resources division of ecological and water resources director Steve Hirsch updates the agency's efforts to control invasive species such as zebra mussels and Asian carp. Recently, two key staff members left that program. Additionally, the DNR will seek millions in funding from the Legislature in its next session, while it also explores possible construction of an Asian carp barrier on the Mississippi River.

Q Luke Skinner was a key member of the DNR invasive species staff until he transferred earlier this year to become acting assistant director of Parks and Trails. Will he eventually return to invasive species?

A The Parks and Trails assistant director job will be filled soon. I can't say whether Luke's applied. But whether he transfers back to invasive species will depend, in part, on how that job is filled.

Q If he doesn't return, will Ann Pierce, who took a voluntary transfer to fill Skinner's job, stay in invasive species?

A We'll have to see how that develops. Like Luke, Ann has a doctorate and is very qualified to hold the job permanently. We have a deep bench, and I have every confidence in my staff.

Q Invasive species lost another key player recently when Tim Schlagenhaft announced he will leave at the end of the year to join the Audubon Society. He had been overseeing efforts to control Asian carp.

A Yes, and we'll fill that job when Tim leaves at the end of the year. For now, it will continue to focus on Asian carp, a high priority for us. But as time goes on, we envision the position's scope to broaden to include other factors affecting the Mississippi River and its health.

Q Some observers say qualified candidates for important invasive species positions will be difficult to find because the jobs gather so much intense public scrutiny and because the DNR's invasive species "war" won't be won any time soon.

A These are challenging jobs, and they're not for everyone. Among the public, there's a wide divergence of opinions about how we should approach some of these issues. Some people think the fight can't be won. Others believe we should inspect every boat before it launches. But we have people within the DNR who are qualified and who enjoy challenges. Additionally, the positions are at a high enough scale to attract good people.

Q You're also going to be looking for more money from the Legislature next year.

A For the fiscal year that ends June 30, we have a budget of $8.6 million for all of our work, including enforcement but not including development of possible barriers on the Mississippi to stop Asian carp. Only $4 million of that is base funding. The other $4.6 million is one-time funding. Just to maintain our program at its current level, we'll have to find a stable funding source of at least that amount.

Q Earlier this year the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District unveiled a proposal that, if implemented, would affect a wide swath of lakes in the west metro, applying tougher boat-launching standards than is now the case. Is that idea still alive?

A They're still considering what to do next year. I don't know of any new developments, or if they've found funding for that kind of regional inspection program. If they move ahead with the proposal, they will have to submit a plan to us to approve.

Q Similar ideas have been floated elsewhere in the state.

A This past year, we had 18 joint powers agreements with local governments, which allowed them to perform inspections at boat landings. And there has been some interest up north, as you indicate, in Becker County, for a regional inspection approach. But we haven't received a formal proposal from them.

Q Some say the DNR is unable to provide boat- inspection training in a timely manner to members of local governments.

A Training opportunities will be improved. We just hired a new training coordinator, April Rust, and also have hired an invasive species information officer, Marjorie Casey. We expect both will be important additions to our staff.

Q The DNR is also exploring possible construction of electric or other barriers at the Ford Dam, or Lock and Dam 1.

A We've contracted with Barr Engineering to come up with preliminary design recommendations, and we expect to have their report fairly soon. Whatever technology they recommend, we still have to go through an approval process with the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has told us that's about a six-month process. So if everything went smoothly from this point forward, and we decide to build a barrier, the earliest construction could start would be a year from now.

Q You'll need additional money for that as well?

A We have $7.5 million in Legacy funds, of which we've allocated $5.6 million for design and construction of a barrier, if we decide to build one. At this point, we don't know if that will be enough or not.

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