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Dennis Anderson: Minnesota's DNR boss speaks out
Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune
August 15, 2004 ANDY0815

Q You have been DNR commissioner about a year and a half. How are things going?

A I think pretty well. Anytime you make changes, as we have with the agency, you get some resistance. But I think the changes we've made have been for the better. Things aren't perfect, but they're OK. As for the job itself, it's great. The subjects I deal with are interesting and things I care about.

Q Describe a typical work week.

A I've been working hard this summer at getting out of the office. Yesterday, for example, was my first day I've been in the office in a week -- and I've been on duty every one of those days. I'm trying to get around the state as much as I can. But it's difficult. The job comes with a lot of administrative details.

Q When you were appointed, you said you would bring change to the DNR. What changes have you made?

A Perhaps the most visible changes we've made have been in Fish and Wildlife, with the appointment of John Guenther as director and Larry Nelson as his deputy -- as well as restructuring that division's other top jobs. But we've made changes in other divisions -- in Parks and Trails, for instance, and in Waters. And we've changed how we use our regional directors, giving them more authority and with that, more accountability.

Let me add that in May we pulled together our senior management and told them we envisioned no further major restructuring. We wanted to assure those who are in key positions they are here because we want them here.

Q How will these changes affect the average DNR constituent? And why would he or she care?

A In large measure, I'm not sure the average person would care -- except in terms of outcome. Our goal is to better connect with our constituents. We want to have more input from constituents, and better output from the agency.

Q Are you convinced the changes in the Fish and Wildlife Division, for example, will do that? Some observers see the changes as little more than job-shuffling.

A I think the changes will improve the division. One problem the DNR has had, I think, is that it tends to focus inward, rather than outward. We have a lot of good managers and good biologists who regularly have to make tough decisions. Oftentimes in these cases there is no right or wrong, just different opinions about what should be done. Consequently, no matter what decision is made, our employees take a lot of criticism. The natural response is to look inward. What we're telling employees is that, even in the face of criticism, they need to reach out to people and listen to them.

Q How does listening to people improve the condition of Minnesota's natural resources, some of which are in dire shape, including its wetlands, farmland habitat and the ducks and other wildlife that depend on them?

A Our mandate is to manage in the long-term best interest of our resources. But we don't do that in a vacuum. To have the political support necessary to manage resources properly requires that we involve constituents individually and collectively. Clearly, that doesn't mean bowing to public opinion, but it does mean listening.

Q Minnesota wetlands have been drained and continue to be lost. And the water quality of more and more lakes is deteriorating. What is the DNR doing about it?

A Water quality is our biggest conservation challenge. Education is part of the answer. We can demonstrate the need to clean up our waters -- and in fact, I think there is generally good public awareness of the problem. Where there's less public acceptance is in the way we manage our lands, which is directly connected to what we do with our wetlands, which affects our water quality. Lakeshore development, for example, is a big concern.

Additionally, we also are seeing greater and greater development pressure on our shallow lakes and other ecologically sensitive waters. These lakes are not going to withstand the kind of development pressure our bigger lakes have been subjected to.

Q Do you sense Gov. Tim Pawlenty has an interest in helping with these issues?

A The governor has shown a keen interest in conservation, including lakeshore regulations. But we're waiting to see how the Central Lakes (conservation) Initiative plays out, and go from there.

Q You say the governor is interested in conservation. Yet he killed the primary water-conservation proposal of the state's water cabinet, of which you are a member. Environmentalists, conservationists and business interests, among others, were represented on the committee that recommended an annual water-use fee in the $40 range to fund water-improvement measures statewide. Pawlenty nixed the idea even though his own Pollution Control Agency commissioner supported it. How, then, can the governor have a "keen interest" in conservation?

A I'm not sure how I can answer that.

Q Let's move to an important subject for many Minnesota hunters: the dire state of ducks here. Everyone agrees that many, if not most of our remaining wetlands are degraded and incapable of supporting large numbers of ducks. Is the DNR making any progress on this front?

A There is no silver bullet. The problems, as you say, are well known. When I look at what U.S. farm policy is doing, and has done, to the countryside, it's very disturbing. I think this is another area where there is a disconnect between what people would like to see happen and what is actually happening on the land, under our farm policy.

Look, for example, at the increase in recent years of intensive row cropping under USDA farm policy, while at the same time we have conservation programs such as CRP and CREP. The effects of these are mitigated by the additional acres that are farmed. Until we get a handle on this problem, we're working on the margins.

Q The DNR budget, tight when you were appointed, is tighter now. What's it look like going forward?

A The total department expenditure is now about $300 million annually. That's a reduction of about $12 million annually from what we spent in the previous biennium. Of course it's more complicated than that, because some areas, like fish and wildlife, that are primarily funded by dedicated accounts, are doing OK, while those divisions, like Parks, that are funded in part by the general fund, have taken cuts -- because the $12 million we lost was from the general fund.

To make up for the $12 million, we've made significant cuts in our fleet and in other areas. And of course we have fewer people working for us now. Going forward, we've not had specific budget direction yet from the administration. But we do know that expenditures forecast for the next biennium exceed income by $500 million to $1 billion. That's for all of state government. So I expect the DNR will be spending even less in the next biennium than we do now.

Q You've observed the DNR for many years from the outside, as a legislator, and now from the inside. The fiscal and other constraints the agency operates under, being controlled both by the governor and the Legislature, seem to be the biggest roadblocks in its efforts to effect conservation in the state, particularly on the farmlands. Wouldn't you agree that developing a state agency that is freer to engage in conservation -- in ways the Missouri Department of Conservation is free from its legislature and governor-- is Minnesota's best hope to make real changes?

A Well, yes, to be totally free, as you say, as in Missouri, where they have guaranteed funding (and they are directed by a citizens commission), that would be one thing. The flip side of the coin, of course, is accountability. But yes, if I were king, I could perhaps come up with a better system.

But again, in Minnesota, when I think of how we could improve conservation, there is a disconnect in what people say they want to see happen and what they are doing about it. People have to change, and change what they demand of their elected officials.

Q But isn't it the DNR's responsibility, and government's in general, to spark that change -- or in some cases require it? And don't you do that by marketing an effective message, by using various media, and by leadership? In any event, are these the kinds of things DNR leaders talk about?

A We do talk about it, and I think it would take the right combination of education and regulation to make some of these changes. You can't get regulation without the consent of the government, so it's a continuous challenge. Legislators have to be part of the solution.

Q What are your hunting plans for the fall?

A I blocked out Sept. 1 to go dove hunting. I expect I'll also hunt pheasants and ducks.
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