"Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us."

— Teddy Roosevelt

Friday morning, Mark Dayton arrived at a Brooklyn Park hotel with a message only he and a handful of others knew he would deliver. The former state auditor, U.S. senator and now Minnesota's 40th governor who is in his second term, Dayton would give the opening remarks at the annual Department of Natural Resources roundtable, or stakeholders meeting, an event that drew some 300 conservationists.

Burdensome as these appearances might be, they are among the responsibilities of the state's chief executive, and over time, they must resemble one another, one crowd similar to the next and the next, each wanting to validate their special concerns with the governor's presence. So it goes with the job.

Not gregarious by nature, arguably even shy, Dayton nonetheless seems at ease among outdoors types. As a kid he fished on Lake Vermilion, where his family had a cabin, so he knows the north country as something other than the politically important "Eighth District.'' Also when young, he shouldered a shotgun while keeping an eye peeled to the autumn sky for ducks. He also chased pheasants and fished on Long Lake, just west of the metro, where he grew up. Don't misunderstand: This isn't Grizzly Adams in the governor's residence. But from firsthand experience, Dayton appreciates that Minnesotans in many cases don't so much live among the state's forests, prairies, bluffs, lakes and rivers, as they are a part of them, inseparable. And to some degree so is he.

So it was Friday when Dayton stepped to the lectern, he was comfortable enough with the audience that he could have winged it. These are only opening remarks, after all; a prelude to daylong meetings. A joke here (and Dayton knows a few) and a self-deprecating comment there, followed by a blessing, of sorts, of those in attendance, and he could have been back at the home place in a relative heartbeat, his German shepherds at his side and a Friday afternoon to kick back.

But as the audience stood and clapped to welcome Dayton — and they did stand, spontaneously — he spread before him the speech he had brought, beginning as he usually does in these circumstances by acknowledging that more Minnesotans care more about who the DNR commissioner is than who the governor is, and that he has resigned himself to his second-place status in this regard. Grand theater, this, and it plays well.

But Dayton wasn't acting when he got to the heart of what he wanted to say. His audience, understand, and similar conservation-minded audiences dating almost to statehood, was quite accustomed to being offered platitudes and little more by state leaders; essentially vague empty promises to "clean up state waters,'' "restore prairies,'' "protect forest fragmentation'' or "stop wetland drainage.'' That none of this actually happens, or very little of it, is borne like a heavy yoke on the shoulders of these conservationists, and a heavier yoke still was not unexpected as the current governor warmed through one paragraph of his presentation, then another and another.

Then quite to everyone's surprise, Dayton said this:

"I will propose that a 50 foot [grass or similar] buffer be placed around all state waters,'' a requirement that will be "enforced by the DNR through aerial and other inspections.''

Acknowledging that some farmers and other landowners, and some farm groups, will oppose the plan in the Legislature, Dayton added:

"The land may be yours. But the water belongs to all of us, and to all who will follow all of us.''

If a big enough feather could have been found to knock over all in attendance, that would have happened, easily; en masse, everyone going feet-up. Because the governor had done what no Minnesota governor has done in recent history, or perhaps in all of history: He grabbed with both hands the third rail of state politics: agriculture and its desire to be left alone, as free as possible from oversight.

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Many farmers in this state get it about conservation and land stewardship.

They try to minimize soil erosion. They use the least amount of fertilizer necessary. And they plant grass or other buffers along streams, rivers and ditches that bisect their property.

To what degree altruism incentivizes these actions is unknown. But a growing number of farmers realize that intensive corn and soybean row cropping is contributing to a loss of organic matter in their soils, and that continuing losses can't be sustained forever. So in these cases, good stewardship decisions are in equal part good business decisions.

That said, from a conservation standpoint, most of the state's farmlands are a mess. Latticeworks of subsurface drain tiles crisscross the region; farmland runoff carries not only insecticides and fertilizer but tons of silt that ruin fish habitat and clog rivers; and pheasants, songbirds and bees, or what remain of them in these parts, have fewer and fewer places to live and sustain themselves in reasonable numbers.

Already Minnesota has a patchwork of rules and laws intended to ensure waterways are bracketed with cover, thereby minimizing bank sloughing and water surges following heavy rainfalls.

In Dakota and Douglas counties, to name two, administration of these regulations is enthusiastic and compliance widespread. But elsewhere, unfortunately, it's laissez-faire, or do what you want — laws and rules notwithstanding.

Dayton's buffer idea is a good, and bold, attempt to rectify some of these problems. But much more is needed. Efforts at the U to develop alternative crops to corn and soybeans that are readily marketed and more soil- and water-friendly should be accelerated and better funded. Similarly, research at the U and elsewhere to develop farmland drainage systems that hold and filter water before dumping it into ditches and rivers should be fast-tracked. As important, a statewide messaging, or marketing, campaign that reflects, encourages and promotes Minnesotans' long-held passion for resource stewardship must be begun and sustained if this state is — in any way — to mirror itself 50 years from now, or even 25.

But all that for another day.

For now, Dayton's initiative is reason enough to celebrate, because in the never-ending battle to sustain wild places and wild critters, leadership is everything, as Teddy Roosevelt demonstrated more than a century ago.

And among state conservationists, Dayton has earned that title.


Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com