The land has fan in Dave Zentner

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2008 - 12:52 AM

At 72, Dave Zentner plies roads to encourage conservation and plies waters and woods for fish and food. He's that rare Minnesotan who combines green and game.

Dave Zentner
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Dave Zentner

Photo: Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

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Awake at 3 a.m. Tuesday, Dave Zentner was on the road within an hour, bound for Minneapolis from his home in Duluth. The purpose of the trip, as usual, was conservation -- of land, water, forests, wildlife. Expenses incurred would be his.

The next day, Zentner was traveling again, this time headed north. A breakfast meeting in Duluth was followed by a drive to Virginia, Minn., then on to International Falls.

At each stop he distributed literature and lawn signs promoting the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment --dedicated conservation funding -- that will be on the ballot in November,

Zentner was interviewed by an International Falls radio station Wednesday evening before meeting with the Rainy Lake Sportfishing Club and driving home. He arrived in Duluth about midnight.

Just another couple of days in the life of this 72-year-old retiree. "It's all part of me paying back what this great state has given me,'' Zentner said.

Zentner is one of a relative handful of Minnesotans who can easily bridge the sometimes too-wide gap that separates "greens'' from the hook-and-bullet crowd.

With a fly rod, few in this state are more experienced. In March, he casts long lines into Lake Superior from the North Shore, looking for Kamloops. In April, he's on Wisconsin's Brule River fishing for steelhead, or the Namakan River for browns -- flowing water having seduced him many decades ago.

He fishes for walleyes, too, will watch a bobber for crappies and beats the water for muskies.

Come autumn, he's a sucker for any game bird with wings: ducks, geese, pheasants or grouse. He's chased them in South Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan, as well as in Minnesota.

"My life is built around hunting and fishing,'' he said.

Yet as a past national president of the Izaak Walton League, a lead player in the establishment of Voyageurs National Park, a onetime member of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency citizens board and a staunch defender of Lake Superior -- against taconite tailings, invasive species and ballast-dumping ships -- his "green'' credentials are well polished.

A retired insurance agency owner and financial planner, Zentner could be excused if he passed the rest of his days with his feet up, gabbing about old times.

His years of support for civic and conservation causes already have earned him two honorary doctorates, one from Northland College in Ashland, Wis., one from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. And he's been named National Conservationist of the Year twice, once by Outdoor Life magazine, once by Chevron.

Why not kick back, shoot a few birds, hook a couple of trout -- and call it good?

What makes Dave Zentner run -- still?

•••

It's 7 a.m. Tuesday at the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis, a venerable institution more than a century old, and Zentner is perched around a large oval table, one of a dozen or so men, one woman and a high school-age boy -- fishers and hunters each. Lance Ness, Zentner's co-chairman of the Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water Rally, is also on hand.

The intent of the meeting is to educate the guests about dedicated funding and send them back to their businesses and homes with literature proclaiming its worth.

Why Zentner chose to rise so early and drive so far to speak to such a small group is a question that might stump even him.

Perhaps the answer can be traced to his childhood home of Clinton, Iowa, on the Mississippi River, where he and his schoolboy pal Denny McKinley first hunkered low, alert for Mississippi River wood ducks.

Or perhaps the answer lies in his decision now so many years ago not to attend the Twin Cities campus of the U but instead to enroll at UMD. It was there that a handful of Duluth men first showed a college freshman how to best spend his free time: hunting ducks on Squaw Lake near Deer River, chasing "partridge'' up the North Shore, fishing the St. Louis River for walleyes, smelting.

Some people gain appreciation of nature through birding, others by hiking, paddling or boating. For Zentner it was these and hunting and fishing.

"I love it all just as much as I did when I was a little kid,'' he said.

•••

Zentner's extensive conservation résumé was established while he built his insurance business in Duluth. Along the way, he took a few lumps, losing a customer here and there in the late 1970s when expansion of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was a hot issue for the Izaak Walton League, and when Reserve Mining was forced to stop dumping taconite tailings into Lake Superior.

"But I've found that if you always tell the truth and treat those who disagree with you with respect, you'll be able to find common ground eventually,'' he said.

Tuesday morning in Minneapolis, and Wednesday in International Falls, Zentner offered a few truths.

Minnesota is in danger of losing its natural heritage, he said -- its clean waters, lands and the fish and wildlife that depend on them -- and with them the connection to these resources that for so many years have defined the state and its people.

"If we don't do something, more of us will try to divide up less, and the quality of our resources and outdoor experiences will continue to drift away,'' he said.

Friday, Zentner played hooky from his volunteer duties.

The sky was blue, the sun shone and a cool breeze drifted off Lake Superior.

Joined by Margo, the high school sweetheart he married when he was a UMD junior, he went looking for walleyes.

Hooking his boat to his GMC Yukon and leaving his road car, a Toyota Prius, in his garage, he crossed once again the sometimes too-wide gap separating greens from the hook-and-bullet crowd.

Dennis Anderson •  danderson@startribune.com

  • related content

  • The Dave Zentner file

    Sunday September 21, 2008

    Home: Duluth • Age: 72Occupation: Business owner, retired. Insurance and financial planning.Honors: Past national president, Izaak Walton League. Outdoor Life...

  • THE DAVE ZENTNER FILE<.b>

    Home: Duluth

    Age: 72

    Occupation: Business owner, retired. Insurance and financial planning.

    Honors: Past national president, Izaak Walton League. Outdoor Life Conservationist of the year. Two honorary doctorate degrees.

    Field pursuits: Bird hunter, angler. Particularly fond of rivers and trout fishing.

    Quote: "To be successful as a hunter, fisher or trapper you have to live close to the earth. You have to know about the woods and the animals and the rhythms of nature. I love the culture of hunting and fishing, and the men and women of hunting and fishing. I never cease to be excited about it.''

    DENNIS ANDERSON

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