Perfect storm threatens Minnesota's natural resources and heritage

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2013 - 8:27 PM

Issues facing Minnesota's environment are complex, often involving multiple states and agencies. Officials are realistic but hopeful.

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A Minnesota Department of Natural Resources representative holds a zebra mussel at the North Arm Public Boat Access in Orono.

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Call it a perfect storm -- an unprecedented confluence of myriad environmental threats facing Minnesota and those charged with protecting its natural resources.

The barrage threatens fish, wildlife and a way of life for many residents.

The threats are so large, complex and widespread, often involving multiple states, government agencies and jurisdictions, that it's fair to ask whether Minnesota can effectively tackle them -- never mind solve them.

And some wonder if residents care enough to support the fight.

"It's frustrating that citizens aren't more engaged and pounding on the doors of our elected leaders on these issues,'' said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a legislative umbrella organization for state environmental groups.

A look back underscores the scope of today's threats.

Thirty years ago, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Alexander wrestled with wetland conservation, creating a new state park on the North Shore, building public accesses on Lake Minnetonka, managing the fledgling elk herd in northwestern Minnesota, and reducing the then-record whitetail deer harvest.

Current DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr faces numerous fish and wildlife issues, including controversial wolf, deer and fish management issues, as well as:

• The spread of invasive species such as zebra mussels and Asian carp into state waters, potentially changing entire ecosystems and perhaps fisheries.

• The continued loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of grasslands and wildlife habitat that had been enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, losses driven by global agricultural and economic factors that will impact pheasants, ducks and other wildlife.

• Potential landscape-changing mining of copper, nickel and other minerals in northeastern Minnesota near the BWCA, and "frac sand'' mining in southeastern Minnesota, which could affect that area's trout streams.

• The depletion of ground-water aquifers being tapped by industry, agriculture and residents, highlighted by a lawsuit filed recently against the DNR over low water levels in White Bear Lake.

• Climate change, which appears to be affecting not only survival of the state's iconic moose, but such coldwater fish as tullibees, which have seen more midsummer dieoffs, as well as forests.

"It's stunning to go through a week and see the variety of things we're engaged in,'' said Landwehr, who has been commissioner for two years. "It's pretty daunting.''

But he said he's an optimist.

"The things that cause me the greatest long-term concern are these global or national issues that we may not have the resources to throw at. What will happen to water quality as a result of intensive farming? Do we have the political will to put mitigating practices on the ground? Are we going to collectively agree to deal with ground water and agree that everyone will have to tighten their belts -- that it's not just a DNR problem?''

But Landwehr also is a realist.

"We can't solve the problems created by federal farm policy with state policy. We can't solve interstate problems with Asian carp movement without federal involvement. We've been pleading with federal agencies to give us some help.

"Do I think we'll stop the spread of zebra mussels? Absolutely not. Our job today is to slow them as much as possible. And obviously we can't do anything about climate change, but we'll be proactive with reforestation, to plant trees that withstand the impacts of climate change.''

Added Landwehr: "We do what we can do; we deal with one issue at a time.''

Morse, a former deputy DNR commissioner and legislator, said state agencies have been hamstrung by budget cuts over the past 12 years. The state used to spend 2 percent of its general fund on natural resources and the environment; now it spends about two-thirds of 1 percent, he said.

"We have mounting challenges and fewer resources to deal with them,'' he said. "My frustration is many public leaders still don't take these core Minnesota values seriously enough.''

Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation and a longtime lobbyist at the Capitol, said political polarization, public apathy and lack of influence by major conservation groups isn't helping.

"Until the general public speaks up, we will have to put a finger in the dike here and a Band-Aid there,'' he said. "It's all about leadership. We're under duress from our own climate, and we can't even convince some politicians there's a problem.''

Is it hopeless?

"No, it's never hopeless,'' Botzek said. "Our job is to try to be stewards [of the land] and do the best job we can. If we're not persuasive, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. We have to stand up for what we think is right and hope the policymakers and funding community agrees with that.

"If not, we have to live with the consequences.''

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com

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