Big grant money for the outdoors, coupled with $100 million in proposed bonding, will be in play at the 2024 legislative session along with policy proposals ranging from marijuana limitations in state parks to a repeal that would allow more elk to roam in Minnesota.

Committee action started this week when state Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, led discussions in his Environment and Natural Resources Committee on a measure to help the DNR move from paper licensing to a fully electronic system. If lawmakers iron out the new law this session, fully electronic outdoor licensing would go into effect early next year.

Hansen's committee also took up the $77.6 million Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund bill. The proposed grants, derived from state lottery proceeds and already approved by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), would pay for 101 different projects — more than ever before. "I think there's a little bit of everything in there," said Becca Nash, LCCMR executive director.

One of the highlighted grants in the package is a $426,000 proposal for what would be an all-new, 110-mile Driftless Area Hiking Trail likened to the Superior Hiking Trail. Like the Superior, the new blufflands backtracking trail in southeastern Minnesota would be shepherded by volunteers. Plans for the initial phase include planning the route and obtaining land permissions.

Bob Meier, DNR assistant commissioner, said the agency's large share of Gov. Tim Walz's $982 million bonding bill this year is vital to address a huge backlog in capital improvement projects. The borrowing is needed to salvage aging state park facilities and repair other run-down assets, he said.

A year ago, the DNR was buoyed by $150 million in new funding from the Legislature to help get more people outdoors. But where last year's win at the Capitol paid for modernization of fish hatcheries, shore fishing facilities, improved access to state lands and other new attractions, this year's bonding proposal is meant to "take care of what we have," Meier said.

"It's really a huge iceberg under the water that we are trying to preserve," he said. The backlog of deferred work totals more than $800 million.

As politics play out at the Capitol through May 20, the DNR will seek approval for a mixed bag of game, fish and parks priorities. Near the top is an effort to repeal a law that is stifling plans to expand the population of wild elk in Minnesota. The DNR wants to manage an existing herd in northwestern Minnesota for growth, partly to create a surplus of animals that could be moved to the Arrowhead region for an ambitious project to re-establish the animals there.

For that to happen, the Legislature must repeal a 2016 law that prevents the DNR from raising elk population goals unless two years pass without an increase in elk damage to crops and fences. DNR attempted the repeal last year but pulled back in order to better communicate the plan.

The DNR's Capitol agenda in 2024 also includes cannabis control. The agency wants the authority to control where in state parks visitors can smoke pot. "We wouldn't necessarily ban it," Parks and Trails Division Director Ann Pierce said. "There might be certain areas where you can and cannot use it."

She said the agency will be asking the Legislature for the same control over cannabis usage already granted to local units of government. The chief concern is keeping it away from areas frequented by children. As it stands, the DNR prohibits alcoholic beverages in state parks but it can't infringe on visitors' legal use of cannabis. Pierce noted that the DNR is reviewing its policy against alcohol in state parks.

Another DNR pursuit this year will appeal to hunters who harvest big game from other states.

It proposes to amend the state's carcass import ban to allow hunters to bring whole heads from moose, deer or elk if delivered to a licensed taxidermist within 48 hours of entering the state. Taxidermists will be required to use a lined landfill for their biological waste, reducing the risk of spreading chronic wasting disease and other wildlife diseases.

Regarding fisheries, the agency is pursuing a statutory change to reclassify lesser-known native species from the unprotected rank of "rough fish." The change to "native rough fish" would separate them from carp species and add them to various fishing regulations to protect them from exploitation. Species like redhorse, buffalo, bowfin, gar and mooneye would benefit.

Wolves have been a hot topic across the forested northern tier of Minnesota, where there's been a groundswell of angst and claims that wolves are to blame for a dearth of deer. Last year at this time, state Rep. John Burkel, a Republican from Roseau County, introduced a bill requiring an annual open hunting season on wolves in Minnesota if and when the federal government returns wolf management to the state.

Eight fellow Republicans continue to share sponsorship of the measure, but Chairman Hansen — a gatekeeper on game and fish legislation — said there's no chance it becomes law this year.

Wolf politics could also arise at the Capitol this session if residents of northern Minnesota and deer hunters who hunt in the region challenge a proposed $996,000 research grant from LCCMR to the University of Minnesota's Voyageurs Wolf Project.

LCCMR's Nash said she's heard there could be opposition to the grant. There has been a backlash against the wildlife research group by citizens who believe wolves are over-abundant and responsible for undeniably low deer numbers in the north.

Regardless of any potential fight over wolves, the LCCMR bill is certain to be a big ticket this year for lovers of the outdoors. Here's a partial list of individual grant proposals included in the package:

· Science Museum of Minnesota, to reconstruct historical lake conditions in Minnesota walleye fisheries to identify factors linked to past success to guide effective management in the uncertain future. ($1.12 million requested)

· Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, to run an information campaign to "Get the Lead Out" of fishing tackle with the goal of protecting loons and other wildlife. ($258,000)

· DNR, to assess movements, survival and causes of mortality of Minnesota elk while developing a noninvasive, safer method to estimate population size. The life history information will inform the proposed plan to re-establish a wild elk herd in northeastern Minnesota ($993,000)

· Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, to connect students from northeastern Minnesota to the wilderness in an education project called "The Boundary Waters is Our Backyard." Especially aimed at schools in Ely and Cook County. ($582,000)

· DNR Fisheries, to expand youth and family fishing opportunities in urban areas. ($1.16 million)

· University of Minnesota Duluth, to study the distribution and population status of three small weasel species in Minnesota. It's to fill "key knowledge gaps" about the critters. ($400,000)