Commissioner of Natural Resources.
In Minnesota, it’s nearly an impossible job that includes oversight of mining, invasive species, parks and trails, fish and wildlife, public lands, waters and forests, and a sprawling bureaucracy with a $550 million annual budget and the equivalent of 2,700 full-time employees.
Welcome, Sarah Strommen.
With her appointment Thursday by Gov.-elect Tim Walz to the state’s most visible cabinet position, and the one with the hottest seat, Strommen takes over for Tom Landwehr, who served for eight years under Gov. Mark Dayton.
Walz stressed in elevating Strommen that Landwehr is a personal friend and the decision to replace him was difficult.
But a “reset,’’ as Walz called it, is appropriate when a new administration takes over at the statehouse.
What Walz didn’t say Thursday, but with luck someday will, is that Strommen’s job isn’t only to run the DNR. Ultimately, she can appoint deputy and assistant commissioners to handle much of those day-to-day responsibilities.
Her charge instead should be to accelerate and improve conservation of the state’s natural resources in measurable ways in the relatively short window of opportunity that remains for such action — a window that for many of the state’s lands and waters is closing fast.
The key word here is “measurable,’’ because, as the management guru Peter Drucker often said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.’’
Especially now, as threats to the state’s resources seem to compound virtually in real time, measurement is critical because its undertaking begets goals and goals beget timetables, each of which can help track progress, or the lack thereof, toward agreed-upon aspirations.
Flush as the DNR is with qualified staff whose work ethic and demeanors compare favorably to those of other Minnesotans, whether in the public or private sectors, the agency, in the aggregate, historically has not been managed in a way that gives it a fair chance to push back successfully against the adverse effects of progress’ inexorable march.
“Progress’’ in this instance meaning, but not exclusively, the advent of chemical-dependent monoculture farming; the continual sprawling of the Twin Cities, with their countless miles of paved surfaces and fertilizer-enriched lawns; and the habitation, 3-10 acres at a time, of much of the state’s hinterlands.
In other words, you and me. We’re the problem. And the DNR, as currently constituted, to the degree its job is to do so, is incapable of withstanding the onslaught we wreak.
Even a CliffsNotes review of Minnesota history shows it has always been thus, by design.
In 1913, a farmer named Charles Swan was quoted in the Lake Wilson (Minn.) Pilot newspaper, saying, “The progressive farmers … feel the time has come when they can no longer afford to have a duck and rat pond represent a part of their farms when it can and will represent the best paying part.”
Swan’s opinion was widely shared, and not wholly unreasonable. Upon white settlement, beginning about 1850 and for decades thereafter, much of southern Minnesota was too rife with wetlands and swamps and the blackbirds and mosquitoes they supported to be predictably productive.
Still, even in the state’s early years, and justifiably, conservationists argued against the wholesale drainage of these resources. These efforts generally failed, as similar conservation efforts continue to struggle today, largely because pro-drainage forces — now, generally, pro-tiling forces, among others — handcuff via political influence what once was the Department of Conservation and is now the DNR.
This is accomplished by — unlike in some states — granting Minnesota’s governor the sole power to hire and fire the DNR commissioner, and by giving the Legislature authority over the agency’s purse strings.
Which returns us to Thursday, when Walz made a big deal out of his campaign slogan, “One Minnesota,’’ and how Strommen and his other nominees were already devotees to the idea.
All well and good — except when the issue is conservation of the state’s lands and waters, anyone with even a scintilla of institutional memory knows that, politically, Strommen, no matter her admirable credentials — and they are admirable; she is a worthy leadership designee — is being set up for limited success, as were the commissioners who preceded her.
Strommen has the right stuff to lead the DNR. But if Walz wants her to accomplish the conservation goals many Minnesotans clearly want, he’ll have to encourage her — nay, command her — to forgo the status quo and figure out new, better and, yes, measurable ways the DNR can help conserve the state’s lands and waters.
And do it with a sense of urgency.
Ask many of the state’s hunters, anglers and other environmentalists and they’ll say the one they have now isn’t the one they want.
They want a Better Minnesota.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org