DNR commissioner: Minnesotans speak up for outdoors, help agency secure funding from Legislature

The fee to access Minnesota state parks — such as iconic Itasca State Park, home of the famed headwaters of the Mississippi River — will go up, but the public construction borrowing bill provided just $15 million of the $33 million the DNR sought for preserving facilities at state parks and elsewhere, including around $3 million for a project at Itasca. (Brian Peterson photo)

MINNEAPOLIS — An outcry by Minnesotans who hunt, fish, use state parks and ride snowmobiles and ATVs helped the Department of Natural Resources get most of the money it requested from the Legislature, Commissioner Tom Landwehr said earlier this week.

That wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The budget bills that first emerged from the House and Senate left out all, or nearly all, the user fee increases the agency sought, and the hikes didn’t make it into the DNR’s budget bill until the very end of the session, the commissioner said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“The public got very vocal as they saw what was coming out of the individual houses. They said, ‘Wait a minute. We want these fee increases,'” Landwehr said. “I think that’s why the conference committee put them back in. The impacts would have been quite consequential.”

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the original environment and natural resources budget bill that the House and Senate passed May 9, which did not include the hunting, fishing, park, boat, snowmobile and ATV fee increases the DNR said were necessary to avoid deep cuts to programs enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of Minnesota residents. Those increases didn’t appear until a House-Senate conference committee unveiled a new bill on the final weekend of the regular session. Lawmakers passed it May 21, and the governor signed it Tuesday.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, who was on the conference committee, concurred that public pressure made the difference. Lawmakers didn’t see an immediate public appetite for fee increases early in the session, he said, but outdoors groups eventually spoke up.

“When there’s that much support out there, it’s much easier for us to pass that,” Ingebrigtsen said.

The DNR didn’t get everything it wanted, such as higher watercraft registration fees to support the operation and maintenance of 1,500 public water accesses. Landwehr said his department will ask again. He also said a plan to use some state lottery proceeds for internships to help create a more racially diverse workforce within the agency will have to be delayed until more funding is secured.

And the public construction borrowing bill provided just $15 million of the $33 million the DNR sought for preserving facilities at state parks and elsewhere, so the agency will try again in 2018, he said.

The commissioner pointed out that much of the sewage system at Itasca State Park, where the Mississippi River begins in northern Minnesota, is 100 years old, and repairing it will cost around $3 million. The water system at Blue Mounds State Park in southwestern Minnesota is contaminated with bacteria, and the visitor center fell into such disrepair that it had to be closed. So that park needs another $2-3 million, he said.

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