In southern Minnesota on Monday, just outside Nicollet, a small town with a big hunting heritage, a gathering of some 50 people stood patiently beneath a warm sun. Nearby, a brisk summerlike wind roiled Swan Lake and also washed over vast adjoining fields of ripening corn. The event was a news conference, and the star of the show, Mark Dayton, would arrive soon enough looking every bit the governor: suit, tie, pressed shirt.
Typically in a hurry, as most governors are, Dayton in this instance arrived nearly on time in a black Suburban that plumed dust down a gravel road before stopping alongside the Nicollet Conservation Club. Exiting the shiny vehicle, the governor walked more or less briskly to the front of the crowd, shaking hands and smiling.
Organized so Dayton could announce details of a bold new state pheasant restoration plan, the event was properly sited.
Rich in tradition, the Nicollet Conservation Club boasts 450 members who teach firearms safety and hunter education classes while also raising tens of thousands of dollars annually for wildlife. Not incidentally, each month the club also sponsors a barbecue like no other, bonding residents of the broader Nicollet community over grilled pork chops and, it is said, various adult beverages.
In sum, the club and its members represent the best of what is best about Minnesota: volunteers working together to conserve the region’s wildlife and, not incidentally, its hunting and conservation heritage. Importantly, dating to its founding in 1942, Nicollet Conservation Club members never back down on tough environmental issues.
Often self-deprecating while speaking, Dayton began his remarks with an apology for being, as he described it, overdressed. This was, after all, a blue jeans crowd on a blue-sky day. The governor sensed it, and soon enough the coat and tie were gone.
But not before Dayton said what the crowd had come to hear.
“Conservation is everyone’s responsibility,” he said. “We inherited this [state] from our forefathers and mothers, and we’re going to pass it on in even better condition to those who are going to follow us. That’s what this should be about.”
Had the governor spoken inside the clubhouse, rather than outside, a pin could have been heard somersaulting to the floor. Because Dayton’s message — however unlikely coming from a sitting Minnesota governor — was that in this state, wildlife numbers can increase, pheasant populations specifically. A long shot, yes, everyone knew that, because formidable forces, especially intense row cropping throughout the state’s pheasant range, argue against its eventuality. Yet oddly, given the widespread distrust of politicians, few in attendance Monday disbelieved the possibility.
Perhaps more oddly still, no one doubted the governor’s sincerity. Before his term ends in three years, Dayton might establish himself as the most conservation-minded chief executive the state has known.
As evidence, consider this: Dayton shows up.
Not just Monday near Nicollet to talk about pheasants, but a few weeks back on the shores of Mille Lacs, where walleye numbers have crashed, and before that, last December in Marshall, at a pheasant summit organized by the Department of Natural Resources at his urging.
Also, in the most recent legislative session, Dayton proposed and rode herd on an initiative that requires vegetative buffers to be established alongside most Minnesota streams, rivers and ditches. Not unexpectedly, organized agriculture fought the idea, despite the buffers’ demonstrated positive effects on both surface and subsurface waters — waters that farmers, their families and livestock drink.
In past sessions, Big Ag’s opposition would have sunk the initiative. But not so this time, and Dayton deserves credit. So much so that even sportsmen who are diehard Republicans are finding much to like about this governor.
“Pheasants and clean water go hand in hand,” Dayton was saying Monday. “You have the habitat and you’ll protect the rivers and streams and the lakes … and bring back the [pheasant] population to what it was in my more active days.”
Soon enough, Dayton was back in the Suburban, dust plume trailing, headed to his next appointment, leaving Tom Landwehr, his DNR commissioner, to spell out particulars of the pheasant plan.
Historically, the DNR chief has been charged with chumming up the state’s hunters and anglers; to satisfy them just enough so they don’t march on the agency’s St. Paul headquarters at 500 Lafayette Road, pitch forks in hand, enraged at the loss of (pick one or more) walleyes, pheasants, ducks, deer — and the cherished lives and lifestyles they support.
Dayton has turned the tables.
He is as enraged as anyone.
And if there ever is such a march, he might lead it — suit, pressed shirt and tie optional.