Points North: Can Landwehr Move the DNR Forward?

Tom Melius (FWS Midwest Regional Director) discusses waterfowl status with MN DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr
Tom Melius (FWS Midwest Regional Director) discusses waterfowl status with MN DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr

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The recent announcement of DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr's leadership team left me wondering just one thing. Does Landwehr appoint the state poet laureate? The commissioner's office now contains two celebrities, if such a label applies to a well-known outdoor writer and former state lawmaker.

Chris Niskanen, who covered the outdoor beat for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and former state senator Bob Lessard, who turns 80 this year, are, respectively, Landwehr's communications director and senior advisor. The commissioner, who promises to run a lean and mean agency, also added two community outreach positions, including Bemidji-based Mike Carroll, who will be the commissioner's special envoy for northwestern Minnesota, where the DNR is often at odds with landowners and county commissioners.

Landwehr's emphasis on public relations likely reflects the priorities of his boss, Governor Mark Dayton, who heard plenty of complaining about the DNR while he was on the campaign trail. Whether or not the complaining is justified, it's for real and must be addressed via outreach and, where appropriate, improved customer service. Both Dayton and the Legislature seemed committed to the latter, though it remains to be seen if they can agree upon a method of doing so.

For those who say the DNR ought to be run by professionals, Landwehr and company are about as good as it gets. The commissioner and his deputy, Dave Schad, came up through ranks of DNR Wildlife under the late Roger Holmes. I've known both men professionally for many years and have great respect for their intellect and abilities. Ditto, without naming them all, for most members of the commissioner's team.

They've inherited a DNR that appears to be in pretty good shape. No major controversies loom on the horizon, though the recent discovery of Chronic Wasting Disease in a wild deer near Pine Island and the possibility of devastating spring floods present immediate challenges. It's likely the administration will spend the next few months defending its budget and perhaps its programs as the Legislature struggles with the state's money woes. Call all of the above business as usual.

The Landwehr years will likely be shaped by fiscal struggles, but hard times often present opportunities to build a strong future. This will be especially important as the state seeks ways to meet long term conservation obligations such as invasive species control and land management objectives. In the wake of the recent retirement buyout, the commissioner must also find ways to restore staffing at DNR field stations across the state. However, his decision to beef up the commissioner’s office staff with new, high salary positions may suggest the beginnings of an ivory tower disconnect.

Landwehr’s background and passionate interest in waterfowl and habitat—in addition to handling the DNR’s wetland wildlife programs, he’s worked for Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy—may result in a new take on farmland habitat conservation. While this is unlikely to result in flocks of mallards darkening the sky or clouds of pheasants bursting from every slough, he may be able to cushion the blow of diminishing federal farm conservation programs. However, it is unlikely he will do any better than previous commissioners at addressing the underlying issues resulting in habitat loss, which may actually accelerate if agricultural production rises to meet a global demand for commodities.

No commissioner is a miracle worker. Like a big ship, the DNR is difficult to turn, no matter who is the captain. If we are lucky, Landwehr will steer a straight course with the agency and pick one or two areas where his administration can make positive changes. Very likely, he will accomplish less than the state’s conservationists desire. That’s to be expected and, unless he really screws up, will be due to factors beyond his control. In fact, Landwehr and his team may well face a political climate hostile to land and water conservation.

Nevertheless, the new leaders have an opportunity to position the DNR for a successful future. The recent retirement buyout offers a chance to hire younger workers and infuse the agency with new ideas and fresh energy. Funding shortfalls mean leaders are forced to rethink the way they deliver DNR services and hopefully improve efficiencies. Landwehr may be able to draw upon his experience with nongovernment organizations to come up with more cost-effective land management strategies for wildlife lands. It will also be up to this team to develop the infrastructure and amenities for the new Lake Vermilion State Park. On the horizon as well is an ongoing transaction to swap and sell state land in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with the U.S. Forest Service.

Much of this work must go on regardless of the state’s budget situation. Dealing with a deficit doesn’t have to mean the DNR stops moving forward, but those moves must be strategically smart, fiscally sound and convincingly sold to skeptical lawmakers and the public. Doing so will take professional expertise in natural resource management and public relations. It won’t be easy, but if the commissioner has the right team in place, it can be done.

Airdate: February 18, 2011

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Midwest Region via Flickr.

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