On Friday in Bloomington, in a hotel ringed by pickups and SUVs, the Department of Natural Resources will hold its annual roundtable, or stakeholders meeting, the purpose of which is open to interpretation.
Begun 30 years ago ostensibly to close the communication gap between the DNR and the hunters and anglers whose pastimes the agency governs, the roundtable today, depending on one's view, is either a sincere effort to advance resource stewardship collaboratively or an expensive public relations ploy intended to allow sporting types to blow off steam — as if to some positive end — over their growing discontent with the state of their state.
One needn't be overly cynical to side with the latter.
Titled "Connecting to the Outdoors," the roundtable this year, judging by its agenda, hopes to explore the many ways Minnesotans of all backgrounds can enjoy and, yes, "connect to" the state's woods, waters and fields. Amorphous by design, the topic likely will feature voices of Minnesotans young, old and in between, presumably testifying how they came to hike, bike, paddle, hunt or fish.
Having hoped the roundtable this year, finally, would offer weightier matters for discussion, many in attendance will shrug, albeit politely. A person would have to be hidebound in a cubicle, cooking up meeting itineraries, not to know already that Minnesota outdoors users are among the most diverse of any "group" in the state — far more so than those who attend Vikings or Twins games, Guthrie shows or stadium concerts.
Connecting these and other Minnesotans to the state's woods, waters and fields is important. But far more important is ensuring those resources remain intact and healthy indefinitely.
Many in the DNR will argue that, conservationwise, given the relatively short leash that tethers their agency and its funding to legislators and the governor, they're doing a good job. Look at wild turkeys, they'll say, and Canada geese. The state has more of each than it did 50 years ago. Isn't that progress?
It is. And there are other examples of improvements as well. But the major conservation issues of the day, indeed the critical conservation issues of our time, have little to do with species-specific advances or declines. If they did, wildlife falloffs, not increases, would deserve the most attention, prime examples being ducks, pheasants, Hungarian partridge, ruffed grouse, songbirds and northern Minnesota deer — the last, in some cases, now providing more sustenance for wolves than people.
Much more important, however, than the fate of any one of these critters, or a multitude of them, is the resolution — or continued avoidance of — Minnesota's fundamental conservation challenge, namely: What do we want this state to look like in 50 years? And how do we realize that vision?
Certainly, whatever that vision is, it can't be achieved by focusing solely on the endless resource-stewardship challenges that confront us day-to-day. Far more important is the bigger picture, specifically how and why the state's conservation management "system" remains rigged in favor of the destruction, or at a minimum the diminishment, of the very resources we claim to value.
It's been said here before, and elsewhere, that so long as the DNR remains a subservient appendage of the state's governor and, no less, of the Legislature, the conservation progress that by acclimation Minnesotans desire — clean and plentiful surface and subsurface water, a more diverse farmland landscape, sustainable wildlife populations, a perpetually pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — will continue to elude us.
Of course, we, too, each of us, are part of the problem. Hanging wildlife paintings on our walls, stashing hiking boots in our closets and writing checks to conservation groups, we comfort ourselves in the Minnesota-like wholesomeness each imbues, while convincing ourselves we're on the right side of the state's resource-diminishment problem; that any losses suffered are someone else's fault.
Psychologists call this common form of self-delusion cognitive dissonance, or the fine art of believing one way but acting another.
Aiding and abetting this mind-set have been a long laundry list of Minnesota governors and legislators, dating to statehood. Establishing the Department of Conservation, forerunner to the DNR, they created a process whose charge, on its face, was to save what Minnesotans valued most, but whose practical effect, over time, was to create the appearance of conservation while greasing the skids for the utilization, exploitation and, in many cases, destruction of the very resources that were intended for preservation.
Still today this slight-of-hand persists. Friday at the roundtable, for example, the DNR will feature its efforts to recover the state's duck and pheasant populations, while its boss, Gov. Tim Walz, who won't be among attendees, advocates for gasoline blends containing 30% ethanol.
The two efforts — boosting game bird numbers and tripling the current ethanol-blend standard — are by most estimations incompatible.
The bird in the hand, as it were, is that unless and until the state's resource-management apparatus is wrested from politicians and placed in the hands of the people, in the form of a citizens commission, the state's fish, wildlife and other professionals necessarily will remain limited in their ambitions, and Minnesota's lakes and lands will continue to degrade.
Other states, in fact most states, already do this. Not to a perfect end. But to a more perfect one than is now the case in Minnesota.
Big Ag will oppose any such change, as will mining companies and developers, among others, and their legislative lap dogs.
Yet it's a fight that merits joining, and indeed should have been joined long ago, and would have, were it not for the citizenry's belief, wrongheaded at its core, that their love of lands and waters would somehow manifest itself, politically, in their proper care.
Maybe someday the topic will even be talked about at a DNR roundtable.
Dennis Anderson • 612-673-7899