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Outdoorsman made big difference in state policies

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Outdoorsman made big difference in state policies
Doug Smith, Star Tribune
June 19, 2005 DOUG0619

He is, foremost, an avid angler and dedicated father and husband.

But he's also a hunter, conservationist and citizen-activist who, for more than 35 years, has worked doggedly for Minnesota's hunters and anglers -- for no pay and little glory.

Frank Schneider Jr., 86, of St. Paul is one of the state's conservation legends.

If you fish or hunt, he has affected you.


• Why does Minnesota have perhaps the finest muskie fishing in the nation?

• Why are commercial fishing nets no longer dipped into Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods to capture walleyes?

• Why are most of the state's lakes dotted with public accesses or fishing piers?

• Why are lakes managed individually, with specific fishing regulations, rather than lumped altogether?

• Why do millions of dollars from the state lottery flow annually to the state's natural resources?

• And why does Minnesota's constitution say that hunting and fishing "are a valued part of our heritage and shall be forever preserved for the people?"

The answers point to Schneider.

While no one person can be credited with those accomplishments, Schneider was a driving force behind those and many others. He has worked tirelessly in the trenches at the state Capitol and at meeting rooms around the state for hunters and anglers.

"He's a giant in Minnesota conservation, right up there with the big names," said Gary Botzek, a longtime legislative lobbyist for natural resource issues. "Here's a guy who never got a nickel for lobbying, and he's influenced public policy more than most of us put together."

"There's probably no person who has done as much for fishing as Frank," said Lance Ness, president of the Fish and Wildlife Legislative Alliance.

But that strong voice is fading.

Though he was at the Capitol this spring testifying in support of a measure that would raise money for public water accesses, three weeks ago Schneider began having health problems and was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. The tumor has affected his speech and mobility.

The prognosis is clear. His family hopes he'll get a few more months at his cabin on Lake Vermilion.

Meanwhile, friends and well-wishers have been sending notes, calling or stopping by his St. Paul home to see him and June, his wife of 60 years.

"I visited him recently, and he said 'Well, no matter what happens, I've had a good long life,' " said Jack Skrypek, retired Department of Natural Resources fisheries chief, who worked with Schneider often during his 40-year career.

Schneider could be blunt. And humorous. He never pulled punches. And the DNR sometimes was on the business end of those verbal fisticuffs. Yet it was the resource he was always concerned about, and he retained a good relationship with the DNR.

"You knew exactly where he stood. He was always honest with me. I consider him an ally and a friend," Skrypek said. "He was a strong voice for anglers. The anglers of this state certainly benefited from Frank Schneider."

Gene Merriam, former legislator and current DNR commissioner, has known Schneider for about 30 years. "He held firm beliefs, but he always treated everyone respectfully," Merriam said. "He's just a real class gentleman.

"For somebody who has never served in government or held elective office, he's had a profound impact on public policy."

The Muskie Guy

Schneider is probably best known as "the muskie guy" because of his long involvement in Muskies Inc., a national group spawned in Minnesota in 1966. Gil Hamm founded the group, but Schneider has been intimately involved as president and treasurer for most of its existence.

And muskies have been his passion, although he fished -- and fought for -- all species. He pushed to ban winter spearing on some lakes to protect the muskie population -- a controversial position that earned him some bullet holes in his fishing boat. (Today, 27 lakes have such restrictions.)

He also pushed the DNR to stock muskies in more lakes -- which also remains a controversial issue on some lakes.

Schneider, once a self-acknowledged "meat angler," also eventually championed catch-and-release fishing.

"Minnesota's muskie fishing is arguably the best in the country, and he was very instrumental in that," said Dave Overland a fishing buddy and natural resource activist who has served with Schneider on the DNR's citizens budget oversight committees.

Muskies Inc. holds a large tournament in the Walker area each year, and four years ago renamed it the Frank Schneider Jr. International Muskie Tournament.

Upset over commercial walleye netting on Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, Schneider launched the Minnesota Sportsfishing Congress in 1979. It lobbied successfully for a special fishing license fee increase, which was used to buy out commercial fishing operations on those two lakes.

"Anybody who has fished those areas over last quarter century recognizes what a significant difference that has made," said the DNR's Merriam. Added Overland: "Now it's one of the most fantastic walleye fisheries in the world."

Schneider also lobbied for more restrictive bass and walleye regulations to improve fishing. And he regularly supported funding increases for natural resources. Just this March, he testified in support of a bill that would boost boat license fees -- some of which haven't been increased since 1981 -- to raise money to improve and acquire public water accesses.

"It's a user's fee -- we're all in favor of that," he was quoted in Session Weekly, a legislative report. "I've been fishing actively since before World War II and don't take our fun away from us. Us old farts, we need it."

Public access is a recurring concern for Schneider.

"Dad said not everyone can own lakeshore, but everyone should be able to use the lakes free of charge," said son John Schneider, 46, an activist who has followed in his dad's footsteps.

Founding father

Frank Schneider also was one of the founders of the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance, which successfully pushed for the constitutional amendment on hunting and fishing in 1998. He also was a big supporter of creation of the Environmental Trust Fund, which funnels money from the Minnesota lottery to natural resources.

In recent years, he's pushed hard for dedicated funding for natural resources -- so far without success. He's been on citizen budget oversight committees, overseeing spending by the DNR, and has been a regular at the DNR's yearly fishing roundtables, where the agency seeks public input.

He's an active member of practically every conservation or fishing group in the state.

His efforts haven't gone unacknowledged. Schneider has picked up a pile of conservation awards over the years. He's a member of the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame, was twice honored by the DNR for meritorious service, was named "Sportsman of the Year" by the Minnesota Association of Farmers, Landowners and Sportsmen, and was named "Man of the Year" by Outdoor News in 2001.

He didn't do it for the accolades.

So why did he spend endless hours at the halls of the state Capitol and meeting rooms, testifying, lobbying, twisting arms?

He can't articulate the reasons now. But in a 1992 interview with Star Tribune columnist Ron Schara, he did:

"I got active in fishing causes back in 1970. Before that I was just out there fishing, catching everything and keeping everything. I got involved when I realized there were legislators and leaders who didn't understand fishing or didn't give a damn about it," he said.

Schneider, then 72, said his most satisfying moment was getting the commercial nets out of Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods.

Said son John Schneider: "He cared, and he actually had fun doing it. He wanted to show up, to be involved, to contribute. It was something he was passionate about.

"His love of hunting and fishing ... it was sort of like another family member. You have to coddle and nurture it. That's kind of how he looked at it."

"He's told me lots of times that he's always had fun doing it. [Fishing and hunting] gave him so much, he wanted to give a little back," his son said.

So who will replace him as a bulldog for hunters and anglers?

"You don't replace guys like Frank with an individual," Botzek said. "You have to send in a committee. They're big shoes to fill."

Said Skrypek: "He's a one-of-a-kind."

Doug Smith is at [email protected].
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