Minnesota is home to nearly 1,500 state wildlife management areas covering some 1.29 million acres, an admirable collection whose origins date to 1951 and the dedication of a handful of employees laboring for what was then the Department of Conservation and is now the Department of Natural Resources.

One of those conservation pioneers was Dave Vesall, a 41-year DNR employee and former director of the agency's Fish and Wildlife Division who died in 2004 at age 87.

Vesall was among developers more than a half-century ago of the state's "Save the Wetlands'' program, the forerunner to today's wildlife management area (WMA) program.

The idea behind Save the Wetlands was straightforward: Farmers had been draining Minnesota wetlands since the 1880s, and by 1950 more than half of these valuable resources had been lost.

In an attempt to save some of what remained, Vesall and his colleagues were granted $50,000 to buy wetlands in southern and western Minnesota.

Minnesota's WMA program has since become the crown jewel of such systems nationwide. Frequently visited by duck, pheasant and deer hunters, WMAs arguably are a primary reason why Minnesota bird hunting has remained as popular as it has. Hunters, after all, have to have places to hunt.

Anglers also benefit, because some 700 aquatic management areas (AMAs) covering 46,000 acres also are part of the same conservation effort.

Yet Minnesota WMA management is the focus of considerable discussion these days, and some debate.

Let's take a look at two current WMA topics:

The 'Gateway' WMA concept

Unveiled to the public for the first time at the recent DNR Roundtable, this idea, explained by DNR Metro Region wildlife manager Jami Markle, intends to make broader use of WMAs located near population centers such as the Twin Cities, Rochester, St. Cloud, Duluth and perhaps other cities.

The idea has been implemented informally and in varying degrees at a few WMAs around the state.

For people who haven't visited a WMA, which likely includes most Minnesotans, the boundaries of these areas are usually marked by small signs and parking areas are cordoned off for perhaps a handful of vehicles. But that's about it. WMAs, after all, exist to provide habitat for wildlife, and their low-key facade reflect their emphasis on critters, not people. Many are periodically burned to promote new grass growth. Some are outfitted with carp-control structures. Others have food plots. But human visitors, for the most part, are on their own, whether they're hiking a WMA with a gun in hand, a pair of binoculars or both.

A Gateway WMA would be a little different, Markle said.

"Our vision, and it's been talked about a few years by some in the DNR, is to focus on the entry points of a few pilot WMAs that essentially would make the areas more inviting to the general public,'' he said. "A better parking area. Perhaps an interpretive panel explaining what a WMA is and perhaps in some, a gravel trail or a mowed trail. Placement of a porta-potty near the parking lot is another possibility.''

The idea, Markle said, isn't to replicate a state park, which by its nature is visitor-friendly. The emphasis of a Gateway WMA would remain on wildlife. But by offering more welcoming entry points, the concept's proponents hope to attract nontraditional visitors such as birders, school kids and others who want to immerse themselves in natural surroundings, particularly before and after hunting seasons.

If that happens, the visitors' appreciation for wildlife and the habitat it needs to exist might grow, which could lead to more understanding of, and support for, the natural world.

Hurdles to implementing the idea include getting approval from DNR brass to choose perhaps five WMAs for pilot projects, finding money for site improvements and maintenance, getting current stakeholders — namely hunting groups whose license fees, directly and indirectly, pay for purchase and maintenance of many WMAs — and ensuring any improvements are consistent with state and federal law.

"There are some WMAs where this idea makes sense and a lot where it doesn't make sense,'' DNR Fish and Wildlife Division Director Dave Olfelt said Friday, adding that the concept warrants further exploration. "I think we can take modest steps toward this in the near term.''

Timber harvesting on WMAs

This issue has simmered since August 2019, when 28 DNR wildlife managers and scientists wrote Commissioner Sarah Strommen saying a plan forged during the Dayton administration to increase timber cutting on state lands, including WMAs, would adversely affect wildlife.

The plan calls for 12% of 870,000 cords to be cut annually statewide to come from WMAs. Important wildlife habitat will be lost as a result, the managers said, in part because too much valuable timber, including old oaks, would be cut, and in part because the plan removes too much discretion from wildlife managers about which trees should and shouldn't be cut.

The managers' letter gained a lot of media attention but changed nothing. Yet the conflict has been kept in play by former DNR wildlife managers who appealed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether the state's WMA timber plan violates federal law. That possibility exists, the former managers say, because many WMAs are purchased with federal Pittman-Robertson dollars derived from an excise tax on guns, ammunition and archery equipment. And strict rules exist about how the money can be spent.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting the audit, which perhaps will be released within a month. Stay tuned.