The level of concern among some Department of Natural Resources employees about the agency's logging practices has become clear.

Around 90% of DNR wildlife section employees who answered an internal questionnaire said they are dissatisfied with the agency's handling of logging on lands where wildlife considerations are required to come first.

The survey result was highlighted late last week at a staff meeting attended by DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen, two assistant commissioners and other top DNR executives, including Fish and Wildlife Division Director Dave Olfelt. The negative feedback was the latest rebuke of DNR's Sustainable Timber Harvest program, launched five years ago at the behest of Minnesota's forest products industry.

Five weeks ago, the program gained new public attention when the U.S. Department of the Interior took the unprecedented step of halting the flow of $22 million in hunting-related grants to DNR because the agency violated conditions meant to ensure that logging on federal-aid hunting lands is primarily conducted for wildlife purposes — not to serve commercial timber needs. According to an Aug. 7 letter to Strommen from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the DNR acknowledged it sold logging permits on wildlife lands without documenting habitat purposes for the cuttings. The letter said the DNR agreed to freeze timber sales on state Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and Aquatic Management Areas (AMAs) while federal officials continue to check on timber harvest compliance.

By estimate, more than 50 DNR wildlife section employees attended Friday's "Forest Forum" meeting in Brainerd. As part of the agenda, DNR Wildlife Section Chief Kelly Straka presented results of an in-house, six-question survey of wildlife staff members who have forest management duties. A slide show was presented, and a copy of one of the slides obtained by the Star Tribune showed this question: "How satisfied are you with the DNR's handling of forest habitat management on FAW administered lands?" (FAW refers to DNR Fish and Wildlife Division.)

According to the slide, more than 65% of respondents checked "very dissatisfied" while more than 20% checked "somewhat dissatisfied." More than 50 employees participated in the survey.

The slide show featured at least two written testimonials from employees who expressed deep dissatisfaction over timber management facets of their jobs. No employee names were attached to the testimonials. "Met with prairie folks who don't do any timber related work and they are fairly happy in their jobs," one of the testimonials said. "I cannot say the same for anyone I talk to who works with timber management."

In the same testimonial, the worker wrote: "Extremely stressful to the point of seeking medical help for stress management, panic attacks."

Another testimonial featured in the slide show was from a wildlife employee who said staff members are given directives about logging and are blocked from advocating for the benefits of diverse habitat. "We are told to find the harvest needed to support cord targets," the worker's testimonial said. "We have been described as uncooperative when we are simply identifying concerns/habitat needs that are inconsistent with STHI [Sustainable Timber Harvest Initiative] based on our professional expertise."

Two DNR employees who attended the meeting described the give-and-take between rank-and-file employees and the agency's executives as "candid but respectful." They asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak about the meeting. Both said a common criticism voiced at the meeting was that wildlife habitat management at DNR is subservient to the rigid logging demands of the Sustainable Timber Harvest program — an accusation that Strommen repeatedly has denied.

Both attendees said Strommen expressed surprise and sorrow at the meeting over the staff's low morale and dissatisfaction. One of them said Strommen conveyed to the group an intention to resolve the matter.

The commissioner, who was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz, has been dealing with an internal schism over logging on wildlife lands at least since July 17, 2019. That's when 28 DNR employees wrote her a memo, circulated in the media, saying, in part: "We do not believe it is scientifically honest or transparent to say that the 10-year timber plan is 'beneficial to wildlife,' especially on WMAs. Some WMAs will not have adequate old forest left for old-forest obligate species."

The Star Tribune sought comment from Strommen regarding Friday's staff meeting. She said the agency's response would come from Olfelt, who wrote: "At last Friday's meeting, we extended a sincere invitation to wildlife staff to share their perspectives and concerns with DNR leadership. I'm not going to discuss what staff shared with us in that conversation; that wouldn't be appropriate or in the spirit of the trust we asked staff to place in us."

Strommen has said her agency will soon produce a five-year progress report on the computer-aided STH program. "We can make changes and we will make changes if they are needed," she told the Star Tribune a year ago.

STH began during the first half of 2018 after DNR determined it could sustainably offer industry 870,000 cords a year for 10 years from state-administered forest lands. The purpose was to generate a consistent, reliable source of wood.

Besides encountering early criticism from DNR wildlife staff, the program was dealt a setback in 2021 when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the DNR from touching trees on 86,000 acres of wildlife lands in northern Minnesota originally included in the sustainable timber harvest pool. The action was taken after a DNR wildlife manager reported that her bosses pressured her to offer timber sales on the land for economic reasons, not for wildlife objectives.