Department of Natural Resources fish and wildlife division director Ed Boggess, 65, retires in a few weeks after nearly 34 years with the agency. An Iowa native who grew up on a small farm, Boggess talks about hunting, fishing and, especially, conservation, past and present.
Q You end your DNR career in one of the agency’s most powerful positions. What were your career expectations?
A I was excited to work with a variety of furbearer species and habitats, and our wildlife programs in general. I did not aspire to higher-level management.
Q Does the DNR get different kinds of applicants now than when you were hired?
A People we hire today are highly trained, very smart and very conservation-minded. The future of the profession for those we can afford to hire is good.
Q As baby boomers age and hunting and fishing license sales diminish, money might be short to support the DNR fish and wildlife division because license sales pay your bills.
A It’s a big concern. Hunters and anglers are an aging group, and we’re not seeing the recruitment into these activities of young people like we once did.
Historically, people who participate in hunting, fishing and outdoor activities have been the backbone of conservation support. The traditional way people have been exposed to these activities is through their families. But families today typically live in urban areas and are occupied with different activities than people once were. We have many programs that try to reach these people. But can we do it at a scale that will make a difference? We hope so. But societal trends are what they are.
Q What’s the solution?
A Part of it is general fund support for the work we do. In the past we got a modest amount, peaking at $6 million for fish and wildlife surveys and management. That’s been eliminated.
Q Compare the 1982 DNR wildlife section to today’s.
A It was smaller. And the DNR overall was more compartmentalized, lacking the strong interdisciplinary work across divisions that is important to us now.
Q Minnesota nonprofit conservation groups played relatively small roles 35 years ago in the state’s fish, game and wildlife management compared to today.
A True. The conservation capacity, as we refer to it, in Minnesota is the envy of most states. The support we have for conservation here is unique. Not only among agencies such as the DNR and the Board of Water and Soil Resources, but the federal agencies and the conservation groups. Which is great, because the issues we face in fish and wildlife and more broadly in conservation are huge and more than any one agency or group of agencies can deal with.
Q For many years Minnesota has had a water crisis, surface and sub-surface. The problem only grows worse. Why?
A Land use affects not only fish and wildlife but water and other resources. And from the time I was a kid, when farms were mostly owned by families, to now, when corporate farming is more common, one thing has remained the same: Farmers don’t make land-use decisions based on altruism. Financial and policy incentives and disincentives drive those decisions.
To develop and implement the types of sound land-use policies that are needed, public awareness and support are necessary. Unfortunately, the public hasn’t been engaged enough in these issues to affect their development.
There have been successes. Soil Bank, for example, was the big farmland set-aside program in the 1950s and ’60s. That was followed in 1985 by the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which now has been reduced in size.
[Acres retired through these programs] were erodible or otherwise marginal for farming. But they were temporary. Gov. Dayton’s permanent buffer initiative is a good step in the right direction. When implemented, it will help clean up our water and provide some wildlife habitat. Re-invest in Minnesota is another good long-term program, as is CREP [Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program]. We also have acquisition efforts, including for wildlife management areas. But you can’t acquire your way to landscape-scale conservation benefits.
Q Will politics forever affect prospects for better land and water uses?
A Missouri’s Department of Conservation has a constitutional separation from the Legislature. I don’t see that happening here. So I think it’s inevitable that politics and conservation are inseparable, nationally and in Minnesota.
But it hasn’t all been bad. Nationally, we’ve evolved in the last century or so from resource management that was largely influenced by politics to management performed by professionals, based on science.
Additionally, as has been demonstrated in Minnesota, there is power in the people to affect politics in favor of conservation. Passage of the Legacy Act in 2008 is one example. The problem is that Legislatures are always facing the pressing issues of the day, while conservation is often a longer-term concern. It’s hard sometimes to get legislators to think far enough ahead.
Q In the end, is conservation losing or gaining in Minnesota?
A We’re losing in a number of areas. We’re just not able to keep up. To do so will take larger efforts at the federal level, the conservation-group level and among the states. But again, people who control land and land use won’t do the right thing for conservation without an incentive.
Q For that to happen politically, doesn’t the average citizen have to be a bigger part of the solution?
A Yes. And even among hunters and anglers, I’m concerned many are getting too absorbed in their narrow interest areas and aren’t looking at the bigger conservation picture.
Q Does the prospect of global warming and its possible effect on Minnesota concern you?
A Absolutely. The science is clear the climate is changing. We know invasive species will be part of the changes we’ll see in Minnesota, as will an expansion of deciduous forests in the North. Wetlands and grasslands also will be affected. As managers, we’ll have to adapt.
Q Will you miss work?
A I’ll miss the people. We have a highly regarded fish and wildlife staff, and many on our staff are seen as national leaders. I owe them and conservationists outside the agency a big debt of gratitude.
Q Often you’ve been the DNR’s point person at the Legislature. Anything about the Capitol you’ll miss?
A I respect the legislative process and the commitment legislators make to it. I would encourage people to get involved, because the Legislature is where decisions are made. But I’ve spent a lot of beautiful spring days in hearing rooms. I won’t miss that.