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Thursday, June 2, 2005 10:54 AM EDT

By Joe Albert Staff Writer

St. Paul - Five days before the Legislative session ended, more than 20 sportsmen and women, each wearing a blaze orange hat, stood atop the steps of the state Capitol.

They planned to attend a conference committee hearing regarding Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal to overhaul the state's Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources. The hearing was canceled.

Instead, they went to Plan B and stood outside the Senate chambers, just as a floor session adjourned. Surprised looks and double takes crossed legislators' faces as they walked toward the group, known as the Orange Hat Brigade.

Gary Botzek, of the Minnesota Conservation Federation, said legislators have taken notice of group, which is pushing for issues such as dedicated funding, LCMR reform, and clean water.

"It's political warfare with other important special interests," Botzek said. "If we expect to be important, we need to let them know we are there. The Orange Hat Brigade is doing an effective job and moving the football down the field."

That night, the brigade met for nearly an hour with Sen. Dennis Frederickson, R-New Ulm, an opponent of the governor's LCMR revamp plan.

Four nights later, in the regular session's final hours, brigade members were at the House chambers, where they received a standing ovation after Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, introduced them. At the time, the House was voting on the omnibus fish and game bill.

"It passed out unopposed," said John Schroers, leader of the orange hats. Brigade members also were on hand later when the same bill passed out of the Senate.

The Orange Hat Brigade is the result of the Ducks, Wetlands, and Clean Water Rally held on April 2. It's the action committee of the rally group, said Dave Zentner of Duluth, who led the rally.

For many of the brigade members, spending time at the Capitol is new, Zentner said.

"Most of the people in the Orange Hat Brigade have never had that experience, yet in spite of that they keep responding, keep coming and coming and coming," Zentner said. "If we can keep the average citizen involved, we've got a chance to get some good things done.

"I think it's brilliant."

In conversations with Orange Hatters, and in watching their reactions to the group, legislators are talking about them, Botzek said.

The Governor's Office also has seen and appreciates the effort, said Bob Schroeder, Pawlenty's deputy chief of staff.

"They've had a pretty good presence - certainly they aren't hard to miss because of both color and quantity," he said. "My view is the sporting community, or conservation groups and so forth, have really taken a much stronger position and taken on more prominence at the Capitol than I have seen before."

The rally group

The group that planned the rally continues to meet to plot upcoming strategy.

"The rally was just a start and we've got such a long way to go," Zentner said.

There are now three distinct committees all working under the Ducks, Wetlands, and Clean Water Rally group banner: the rally action committee, which includes the Orange Hat Brigade; the executive committee, which includes a representative from each of the organizations that helped organized the rally; and the steering committee, which develops policy.

The group is making plans for a wetlands summit, working to craft wetland and duck recovery plans, and pondering holding another rally, Zentner said.
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