DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr will appoint assistant commissioner Erika Rivers director of the Parks and Trails Division when its current director, Courtland Nelson, retires in April, the agency said Monday.
Rivers, 41, was appointed assistant commissioner by Landwehr in 2011 and currently supervises three DNR divisions: parks and trails, fish and wildlife, and enforcement.
“I asked Erika to make this move because I believe she is uniquely positioned to continue moving the Parks and Trails Division toward realizing its vision of creating unforgettable experiences that inspire people to pass along the love for the outdoors to current and future generations,’” Landwehr said. “Erika has proven herself a strong leader during her three years in the commissioner’s office.”
As assistant commissioner, Rivers oversaw development of strategic plans, development planning for the Fort Snelling Upper Post, Lake Vermilion State Park and La Salle Lake State Recreation Area, and the initiation of Phase II of off-highway vehicle system planning.
Rivers will oversee a $103 million annual budget and a staff of 1,200 full- and part-time employees. State parks and trails host more than 9 million visitors each year and help support Minnesota’s $11.9 billion tourism industry. The division manages:
76 state parks and recreation areas.
62 state forest campgrounds and day use areas.
Thousands of miles of state trails: forest (390), horse (1,000), ski (730), off-highway vehicle (1,000), snowmobile (950), water trails (4,530).
1,500 public water access sites.
350 fishing piers.
“It has been my privilege to serve in the commissioner’s office under Commissioner Landwehr for the past three years,” Rivers said. “I am honored and excited to be returning to the Parks and Trails Division to lead the talented staff and important work that’s being done there to connect people to the outdoors and Minnesota’s natural and cultural resources.”
Rivers holds a doctorate in conservation biology from the University of Minnesota.
Waterfowl Production Areas in Minnesota will be open to hunters when the state's pheasant season begins Saturday at 9 a.m.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued the announcement Friday afternoon, making about 300,000 acres of pheasant lands available to hunters. The lands had been considered off-limits during the government shutdown.
In its announcement, the service said:
"It has been determined that allowing public access to Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs) will not incur further government expenditure or obligation and is allowable under a government shutdown. Therefore, effective immediately, all WPAs will reopen to public use.
"As the shutdown continues, if the Service determines that maintaining the WPAs in open status, individually or cumulatively, would likely cause Service expenditures or obligations to be made in violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act, the Service will close public access.''
Ken Soring has been named the DNR's top conservation officer, and as division director will lead a staff of 250 with a budget of $38 million, the agency has announced.
“Ken Soring has a deep and lifelong commitment to Minnesota resources and more than three decades of experience in the Division of Enforcement,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “He has great standing amongst field officers and our stakeholders, which will be very helpful as the Enforcement Division embarks on its strategic planning and workforce initiatives in the coming years.”
Soring began his DNR career as a wildlife laborer before becoming a conservation officer in 1984. He has served eight years as a conservation officer, 12 years as a district supervisor and the past nine years as a regional enforcement manager in Grand Rapids.
Soring also was acting enforcement director for six months in 2008-2009.
“I really see three immediate priorities for the division,” said Soring. “As a division we need to provide excellent service to Minnesota citizens; work to increase compliance rates with natural resources laws through education and enforcement; and strive to continuously improve the ways we conduct our work.”
Soring assumes his new position June 19.
People might disagree with Mark Dayton’s politics. But those who know the governor say he’s a good guy who tells the truth.
We’ll see about that.
Attached to this blog is a short video taken at Game Fair during Dayton’s campaign for the governor’s office. In it, Dayton commits to his complete support of the state’s sportsmen and women, and the recommendations of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council in its annual habitat funding recommendations to the Legislature.
The council recommends habitat projects to be paid from the Outdoor Heritage Fund (OHF), created in 2008 by passage of the Legacy Act.
The issue is considered critical by hunters and anglers, among other conservationists, because the Legislature has an abysmal record of funding natural resources stewardship, and a better record of routing money to pet projects that was intended instead to clean the state’s waters and conserve, enhance and restore wildlife habitat.
Here — as you can see by watching the video — is Dayton stating his unequivocal support for the council, its “authority’’ and his promised veto of any legislative attempts to fund projects not approved by the council.
“I just want everyone to know that if I’m governor, the sportsmen and women of this state are going to have a friend in the governor’s office. I will veto any legislative attempt to usurp the authority of the Lessard-Sams Council.’’
On Monday, the final day of the legislative session, in both the House and Senate, the authority of the council was usurped in a Legacy bill that soon will be on Dayton’s desk awaiting his signature, his veto or some combination of both.
Minnesota groups representing more than 100,000 hunters, anglers and other conservationists want Dayton to sign the bill, but with line-item vetoes of a $6.3 million appropriation to metro parks and $3 million for invasive species.
The issue is critical, the groups believe, because the metro parks appropriation from the OHF was rejected by the council before being included by the House in its Legacy bill and, ultimately, in a House-Senate conference committee agreement.
Similarly, the council didn’t approve — or even have a chance to review — the invasive species appropriation.
The 12-member Lessard–Sams council comprises eight citizens and four legislators. Its charge — transparent, democratic and open to the public — is to review scores of habitat proposals from throughout the state and recommend those for OHF funding that are science-based, economically efficient and have the most potential to benefit the state’s land, water, fish and wildlife.
The OHF is one of four funds created by the Legacy Act, an amendment to the constitution that fractionally increases the sales tax and dedicates the money to fish, game and wildlife habitat, the arts and cultural heritage, clean water and parks and trails.
About $300 million annually flows into the funds, $100 million for game, fish and wildlife, $100 million for clean water, about $60 million for the arts and cultural heritage and $40 million for parks and trails.
Habitat should be science-based
Game, fish and wildlife projects funded by the OHF are intended to fit into a long-range habitat plan the council has developed in an attempt to slow, or in some cases reverse, the degradation of the state’s fish and wildlife habitat that has occurred for more than a century.
The point of the OHF never was to plant trees or other habitat helter-skelter throughout the state, but instead to help heal its landscape on a grander scale by targeting projects — one building upon another — within watersheds and other natural geographic delineations.
Nor did supporters of the Legacy Act, which was first conceived by hunters and anglers hoping to model a similar conservation plan in Missouri, imagine that beneficiaries of one fund, say parks and trails, would try to gain money from another, in this case the OHF.
The Senate this session has stood by the Lessard-Sams council’s OHF recommendations, while the House added the parks plan and made other significant changes to the council’s recommendations, including the invasive species appropriation.
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis and chair of the House Legacy Committee, has said legislators have the right as elected officials to change the recommendations, adding that in her belief the Lessard-Sams council is biased again the metro area.
But about 10 percent of the council’s funding recommendations has been directed to the seven-county metro, and 14 percent goes to the greater metro — relatively more than the two represent as percentages of the state land mass.
Metro habitat projects also are significantly more expensive than greater Minnesota wildlife projects, which oftentimes also are paid for with matching funds from conservation groups or state or federal wildlife agencies.
Some council members say they voted against funding the metro parks proposal because it was poorly conceived and presented, overly expensive and didn’t fare well in competition with proposals that totaled more than twice the funds the council had available.
But Kahn defended reviving the parks idea in the House bill even as it received criticism by a who’s-who of state conservation and environment groups.
The university-area legislator said in her committee she believes ducks need habitat where they eat “breakfast and lunch’’ near her home in downtown Minneapolis, not only in greater Minnesota.
Her office didn’t respond to an email request for comment on Monday.
Conservation groups — including Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and Pheasants Forever, among many others — say that Kahn, various park lobbyists and other metro legislators, including House Speaker and one-time gubernatorial candidate Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, are trying to get their foot in the OHF door to secure Legacy money for the metro not only this session, but in future years as well.
Thissen has said it’s important to keep outdoor activities and relatively wild places available to the state’s large urban population.
Lance Ness, president of the Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance, has another view.
“It’s pork politics at its plainest,’’ he said.
Council promised to voters
Senate Legacy bill author Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said in this committee many voters who backed the 2008 amendment believed a citizen-dominated council would be established to keep politics as far away as possible from the OHF funding process.
But Kahn and her supporters, including Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, seem to have never warmed to the council idea.
Hansen, in fact, has attempted to disband it — as he has the Clean Water Council. And Kahn prepared an amendment to her Legacy bill this session that would have increased the council’s membership to 17, while flip-flopping its balance of power, 10 legislators to seven citizens.
The amendment was never offered.
Among powerful metro interests aiding Kahn on Legacy at the Capitol is longtime Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board lobbyist and attorney Brian Rice.
Kahn is close to Rice, and Kahn has been quoted saying he contributes to her campaigns.
Last year, Rice and his law firm were paid $646,694 for lobbying and legal work by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, whose 2013 budget is about $94 million.
On Sunday, retired Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant said he spoke with Dayton at the recent unveiling of the new Vikings stadium, and that Dayton told him he would veto the House Legacy bill if it came to his desk.
Grant sent a letter to Dayton today, asking the governor to line-item veto the metro parks and invasive species funding.
“I value our friendship, I value your service, and I value your word,’’ Grant wrote. “The future of Minnesota’s outdoor heritage is in your hands. It is your responsibility and privilege to uphold your promise and exercise your line-item veto.’’
Retired Vikings coach Bud Grant, who is following the action — or inaction — of the Senate-House conference committee that is attempting to resolve differences between the two chambers' versions of the Legacy bill, said Sunday that Gov. Mark Dayton told him the House's version of the bill "won't get through the Senate.''
The governor also said, "And if the House bill did pass the Senate, I'd veto it.''
Grant said he had a moment alone with the governor at the recent unveiling of the design of the new Vikings stadium.
"We just happened to have a moment with no one else around, and I said to the governor, 'You know what you said, that you would support the (Lessard-Sams) Legacy Council's positions on habitat funding,' '' Grant said. "The governor looked me right in the eye and said, 'I know, I know. The House bill won't pass the Senate, and if it does I'll veto it.''
Dayton had promised while campaigning for the governor's office he would veto any attempt to usurp the authority of the 12-member Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. Eight members are citizens; the remainder legislators.
The council for the coming funding year recommended habitat projects totaling nearly $100 million from the Outdoor Heritage Fund benefiting game, fish and wildlife.
But the House Legacy Committee, chaired by Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, rewrote the recommendations significantly, and forwarded a bill that passed the House that changes the council's funding recommendations from annual to biennial, while adding about $6 million in metro parks funding and a land acquisition by the Fond du Lac band of Chippewa.
Kahn chairs the five-member House conference committee that has met with its Senate counterpart chaired by Sen. Dick Cohen, so far without resolution.
Wildlife, conservation and environment groups are watching the issue closely, as are arts and cultural heritage organizations, parks and trails groups and beneficiaries of the state's Clean Water Fund. In total, nearly $300 million in Legacy funds is at stake for the coming year, and unless the Outdoor Heritage Fund showdown is resolved by the time the Legislature adjourns Monday at midnight, the money won't be spent.
"I have no reason to question that the governor won't keep his word,'' Grant said. "Every dealing I've had with him in the past, he's lived up to.''