Points North: Somewhere, We’ve Lost It

MN DNR volunteers conducting a survey of dwarf trout lilies
MN DNR volunteers conducting a survey of dwarf trout lilies

A recent interview with DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr in Minnesota Outdoor News ended on a less than inspiring note. When asked about what he hopes to accomplish in the next three to five years, Landwehr’s first answer was he hoped to encourage Minnesotans to take kids fishing.

Really, commissioner?

Special programs to introduce kids to the outdoors have been part of conservation since at least the 1950s, but they rose to prominence in the past decade or so as demographic statistics showed youth participation in steep decline. Suddenly, everyone and their uncle jumped on the “take a kid fishin’” bandwagon. Little data exists to measure the success of these much-ballyhooed efforts, but saying you support youth outdoor programs is politically safe with just about any crowd. We can only hope Landwehr was playing safe politics and not simply ducking the question.

Speaking of ducks, the commissioner hopes to protect more wild prairie, likely through the purchase of conservation easements on private land—a worthy endeavor, but no surprise. Landwehr is a “duck guy." He was the wetlands program leader for the DNR before leaving the agency to work for Ducks Unlimited and then The Nature Conservancy. His passion for ducks is admirable, but placing an emphasis on programs involving his former employers has the appearance of being self-serving.

To be fair, it is far too soon to judge Landwehr's performance. He's spent only three months in one of the toughest jobs in state government and is climbing an inevitably steep learning curve that includes learning a little bit about everything from butterfly preserves to open pit mining. We may need to give the man some time to get his feet wet, but we needn’t lower our expectations about his performance.

Landwehr is the first natural resources professional to lead the agency since Rod Sando in the 1990s. He is stepping into the leadership position at a time when politicians are rewriting environmental regulations to suit industry, rescinding fishing rules to suit special interests, slashing conservation budgets and much more. Within the agency, forward progress is often stifled by bureaucratic inertia. The DNR workforce is heavy to baby-boomers who are being lured to retirement with buyouts—far out-pacing their replacement with new hires. Suffice to say about the last thing Landwehr needs to worry about is whether we the people will take a kid fishin.'

So what can Landwehr do? For starters, he needs to articulate his vision for the DNR and sound resource management. While doing so may carry some political risk for him and his boss, Governor Dayton, Landwehr is, after all, charged with the responsible stewardship of the state’s natural resources. If he doesn’t speak up for our lands, waters and wildlife, who will?

Inside the agency, Landwehr needs to foster a new work dynamic based on present realities. Times have changed and not necessarily for the better. Today’s DNR is expected to do more with less. You can complain about the circumstances, which the interview suggests may be Landwehr’s present approach, or you can find new ways to get the job done. It won’t be easy, but the state’s budget woes present the commissioner with an opportunity to rethink how the DNR does business and position the agency for a successful future. At the very least, timely completion and execution of projects should be among the commissioner’s top priorities.

Another needed change is to bring new recruits into the DNR’s aging workforce. Former commissioner Gene Merriam successfully trained and hired a young cadre of conservation officers to offset a surge of Baby Boomer retirements. A similar effort is now needed within the ranks of Forestry and Fish and Wildlife. Too often, DNR retirees are rehired as “consultants,” preventing young professionals from getting a start in their careers and depriving the agency of fresh energy and new ideas.

Instead of asking us to take a kid fishin’, Landwehr should set a loftier goal for his outreach to Minnesotans: restoring our pride in our state and its bountiful natural resources. Somewhere along way we’ve lost it. If we don't get it back, someday we won't have anywhere to take a kid fishin'.

Airdate: April 8, 2011

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

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