Just as a debate erupted over state salary increases in Minnesota, the commissioner of a critical state agency made a conscientious decision that will potentially put him in political cross hairs. But the farsighted action by Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr merits praise and should serve as a timely reminder of the need to attract and retain strong leaders in government.
Landwehr’s role makes him steward-in-chief of the lakes, rivers, prairies, forests and abundant wildlife at the heart of Minnesota’s identity and our famed quality of life. About a week ago, Landwehr exercised his agency’s authority over groundwater permitting to call a halt to a large North Dakota potato processor’s plan to convert large swaths of central Minnesota forests to cropland.
In policy circles, it’s known as “pines-to-potatoes conversion.” For good reason, it has increasingly become an environmental concern.
The conversion process destroys habitat and dramatically changes the landscape. Runoff and groundwater infiltration containing fertilizers or pesticides are a concern, particularly in a state making dramatic investments through the Legacy Amendment to improve water quality.
In addition, potato fields in most American locations require irrigation. In Minnesota, wells drilled into groundwater reserves typically provide the water supply. But as the sadly shrunken White Bear Lake illustrates, the state’s waters are connected in ways scientists are just beginning to understand. High-capacity pumping, such as that from the 54 additional well permits requested by the private, family-run R.D. Offutt Co. for the new potato fields, could have serious consequences elsewhere. It isn’t just recreation that’s at stake. Especially in rural areas, many Minnesotans rely on groundwater — a finite resource — for their drinking water. Wells are essentially like drinking straws dipping into a glass containing a beverage. If there are too many of them, there may not be enough for everybody.
Landwehr sensibly ordered a type of review known as a discretionary environmental assessment work sheet (EAW) to determine potential impacts, a move that essentially suspends the conversion. According to the DNR, Offutt has purchased about 12,000 acres of Minnesota pine forests for cropland conversion. Another 15,000 acres may be vulnerable. The areas at risk cover parts of Becker, Cass, Hubbard and Wadena counties; the combined area of purchased or vulnerable land totals about 42 square miles.
That’s a large area of land to undergo such a dramatic change. In addition, the number of well permits requested by the company, which supplies potatoes to McDonald’s restaurants, would put significant pressure on groundwater supplies. Studying the potential impact is the right thing to do.
It’s disappointing that Landwehr has not been backed more publicly by other state commissioners — those at the Department of Health or Agriculture, for example — with strong interests in this issue.
That Landwehr has been doing a solo act may have something to do with the perceived influence of Offutt’s family owners. They were influential political campaign contributors in 2014 legislative races — the details of which were energetically brought to light over the past week by Bluestem Prairie blogger Sally Jo Sorensen. With the Republican House’s focus on lightening businesses’ regulatory burden, decisions like Landwehr’s likely aren’t going to be politically popular.
In an interview with an editorial writer, Offutt CEO Keith McGovern said that his company fully supports the EAW and that it will cooperate with the DNR. Asked if he was pushing Landwehr or legislators to reverse the EAW, McGovern said no. He and other Offutt officials noted that the company is seeking to expand its footprint so that it can rotate potato crops, which is a more sustainable farming method.
McGovern’s cooperation with the DNR reflects well on the company and underscores the wisdom of Landwehr’s decision. The EAW is a necessary step in the ongoing stewardship of Minnesota’s treasured natural resources.