Conservation of Minnesota's natural resources is in a lot more trouble, and more immediately, than most people realize. If actions aren't taken in the next 10 years or so to reverse hunting and fishing participation trends; to address the way land, water and wildlife stewardship are paid for; to better monitor and maintain the health of the state's lands, waters and wildlife; and to increase significantly Minnesotans' conservation awareness levels, the outdoors lifestyle that historically has been Minnesota's hallmark will go the way of the horse and buggy.

Unfortunately, this drama — and it is that — is far removed from most Minnesotans' daily concerns. Partly as a result of this disconnect, actions by state agencies, notably the Department of Natural Resources, and even more notably state government as a whole, have been ineffective in addressing these multiple, interwoven challenges.

The good news is solutions exist. But they will require new problem-solving methodologies that are speedy and creative. If instead government continues to address problems central to maintaining a healthy and abundant "natural world'' in its traditionally plodding way, gloom, if not doom, is certain.

Overarching these challenges is a lack of agreement about what Minnesotans want their state to look like 25 years from now, and 25 years from then. What we don't have, in other words, is a goal. Absent such a consensus — which with minor effort could be developed by the Gov. Tim Walz administration — one must assume that, as in the past, healthy, abundant and accessible lands, waters and wildlife are fundamental to most residents' vision of a future Minnesota.

With that assumption in mind, consider in reverse order the four conservation challenges listed in this column's first paragraph. Then e-mail me for possible publication on this page your speedy and creative solutions to each (my e-mail address is at the end of this column).

Increasing Minnesotans' conservation awareness

While higher, perhaps, than residents of some, if not most, other states, Minnesotans' awareness of what could be called the state of their state is nonetheless too low to compel politicians, state agencies, conservation groups and others to further accelerate and improve land, water and wildlife stewardship. Put another way, too few Minnesotans possess what the noted conservationist Aldo Leopold described as a land ethic.

Controlling invasive species and fish and wildlife diseases

Zebra mussels. Asian carp. Starry stonewort. Spiny water fleas. Chronic wasting disease. Lyme and other tick-born diseases. West Nile virus. As presently constructed, the state lacks the political support, staff and budget to battle these and other as-yet-unknown afflictions.

Paying for land, water and wildlife management and conservation

As noted in this space last Sunday, hunters and anglers pay through license fees and federal excise taxes about 80 percent of national wildlife conservation. Yet as a percentage of the population, and in some states in real numbers, hunter and angler numbers are declining. How then to spread the cost more broadly of land, water and wildlife conservation?

Reversing hunting and fishing declines

Reference now the chart on this page showing Minnesota deer hunting license sales for the past 10 years for four age categories, 10-24, 25-38, 39-55, and 56-plus.

The numbers are revealing not least because hunters and anglers arguably are the most conservation-aware of all Minnesotans, and if their ranks are declining, the falloff likely speaks to an even more severe waning of environmental attentiveness among non-hunting and angling Minnesotans.

As the chart shows, deer-hunter numbers for ages 10-24 dropped about 10 percent in the past 10 years; deer hunters age 25-38 remained fairly stable, declining 2.4 percent; deer hunters age 39-55 plunged almost 23 percent; and deer hunters age 56 and older increased about 36 percent.

The bad news, as DNR hunting recruitment coordinator James Burnham notes, is that the increase in 56-and-older hunters isn't due to more baby boomers taking up hunting in their dotage. Instead, the increase is simply a factor of a larger age group, or cohort, of hunters born generally between 1948 and about 1960 moving through life.

That group disproportionate to subsequent generations hunted and fished because game and fish were abundant, access to lands and waters was easy, the nation was far more rural than it is today, and fewer entertainment options existed.

Studies show, however, that hunters and anglers begin to "gray out'' of field-sport pastimes beginning at about age 70 — which many of the oldest baby boomers are just now turning.

The upshot of these challenges, individually and collectively, according to a 2017 study conducted for the Council to Advance Hunting and Shooting Sports, is that "reductions in conservation revenue may begin as early as 2024, and by 2032 state wildlife agencies and other conservation organizations may face great challenges in revenue shortages, loss of political capital, and shrinking social relevancy.''

Thus the need for speedy and creative solutions.

E-mail solutions to