Minnesota outdoors users should be monitoring critical habitat debate
The Minnesota DNR and representatives from a consortium of state outdoors organizations have been holding meetings to discuss the agency’s intentions to redirect critical habitat funding. Outdoor News has had news stories about this issue in 2021, and Tim Spielman provided background on the topic in his March 12 column. Dennis Anderson at the Star Tribune also has written about it a couple of times.
Many of the conservation groups represented at recent meetings have signed a letter opposing the DNR plans. To recap, the agency wants to use some of the roughly $25 million sitting in the state Critical Habitat account (plus some future contributions) for research, assessments, and other important but arguably routine DNR work. The money in that account, however, comes from all those nifty Critical Habitat license plates, and that’s not what the public expects when it forks over $30 to buy a plate. That money is supposed to be used to buy and improve critical habitat for wildlife.
In fairness, the groups and DNR are forging some compromise, particularly on the issue of using some of these dollars for nongame efforts and allowing a 2:1 match ratio (instead of 1:1) but ultimately the agency still wants to expand the use of fund dollars to some of those DNR monitoring activities.
I’ve been around a few years watching the state natural resources scene and I feel confident in saying that if a Republican administration were pushing a plan to divert acquisition dollars, state environmentalists and conservationists would be extremely upset. It’s really hard to create acquisition accounts, but it’s easy to redirect them to other priorities. We’re talking about diverting habitat dollars into the slippery slope budget of day-to-day field management.
DNR brass really wants this to happen, for reasons I don’t entirely understand. Having a habitat fund flush with dollars strikes me as a good thing, a political opportunity for Gov. Tim Walz to produce and highlight landmark habitat acquisition. Maybe think outside the box, get all these groups together and create a new project or campaign. Go with that 2:1 match and tell conservation group membership and state citizens at large: “Donate $1 to this cause and your contribution will secure $3 in habitat funding for state wildlife!”
The state could use the money to secure a birthright project for future Minnesotans by creating a new wildlife refuge or expand some existing WMAs. (Maybe some near populations centers to highlight the agency’s Gateway WMA plan….) Have a big press conference with Walz to unveil something positive “for future generations” amidst the never-ending backdrop of COVID negativity.
Why does DNR want this so bad? Probably because the agency is correct that we have some funding shortfall chickens coming home to roost with current license funding mechanisms at best plateauing, and they’re trying to find other pots of money to manage the future.
DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen told the 2021 Roundtable that the agency would be evaluating funding going forward. Spielman immediately interviewed her to understand what that means, but details still remain vague.
This critical habitat issue feels like the tip of the spear in future revamped DNR funding priorities. It’s wrong because financing research and surveying activities are not what these dollars are intended to do. And if it can happen to a relatively insignificant critical habitat fund, it can happen with larger dedicated accounts.
Practically I understand the DNR’s position, but find other ways to fill funding gaps. Generations of conservationists and past Minnesota citizens fought to create accounts like the critical habitat match because they knew the day would come when tight budgets would leave such priorities like this underfunded. Well, we’re at that fork in the road, and sporting constituents need to choose the right path. Because once we eviscerate accounts like this, those dollars – and the legacy of people who fought to build those accounts – are gone. Such precedents then make it easier to treat other dedicated accounts the same way.
For rank and file sportsmen and sportwomen, the whole critical habitat account debate probably has an “inside baseball” vibe. A bunch of public and private policy-makers arguing about which pot to dump public money. But I say to state outdoors users reading this: Watch this issue close and oppose DNR efforts to redirect critical habitat match dollars.