Minnesotans have passion for the state’s natural resources. That passion is shared by leadership and staff at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Minnesotans also have varying ideas about how to best manage our shared resources for the future. It’s critical for the DNR to hear all these voices.
However, it’s also important that perspectives are fully informed by facts. That’s why I wanted to clarify some mischaracterizations that appeared in “Minnesota’s long wrong turn on natural resources,” (Opinion Exchange, Nov. 12) by Steve Thorne, the DNR deputy commissioner from 1978 to 1990.
In 2017, then-Gov. Mark Dayton directed the DNR to analyze whether a timber harvest of 1 million cords from state-managed forest lands was sustainable. The resulting sustainable timber harvest analysis (STHA), led by an independent contractor, was the most comprehensive and sophisticated analysis of its kind that DNR has ever conducted.
The analysis examined a range of potential harvest scenarios and effects on ecosystems, watersheds, biodiversity, habitat and the forest economy. It relied on input from environmental, conservation and industry stakeholders. In the end, the DNR determined that a 1 million cord harvest was not sustainable. The final agency decision was to offer 870,000 cords of timber annually, a 70,000-cord increase over the previous offer level that ensures the diverse mix of tree species and ages required to sustain healthy forests.
Logging in wildlife management areas
Wildlife management areas (WMAs) exist to provide wildlife habitat and wildlife-based recreation. Forest-dwelling species need a range of conditions to thrive, and timber harvest is a common habitat management tool. The DNR works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on a number of its grants to ensure the DNR is managing WMAs in ways that meet habitat goals and other requirements. Notably, under STHA, both modeled and actual timber offerings on WMAs are steady or slightly lower than in recent years. As USFWS Regional Director Charlie Wooley and I reiterated recently, the DNR and the service share the same goals of improving habitat for wildlife and wildlife-based recreation.
Minnesotans’ use of off-highway vehicles (OHVs) has grown dramatically in recent decades. The 1980s demonstrated the natural resource damage that results when the state doesn’t offer purpose-built OHV trails. Today, the DNR works with communities to manage trails, enforce laws and regulations, and provide appropriate designated routes to help protect natural resources. One example is the Border-to-Border Touring Route, which will be a mapped route of existing, mostly unpaved roads.
After careful consideration, the DNR’s environmental review unit, which is independent of the project, determined that an environmental assessment worksheet was not needed on this existing route, where highway-licensed vehicles can already travel.
Additionally, the DNR is working with the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) to review a locally led trail project in Houston County. This analysis is to ensure appropriate environmental review for trail development.
Copper, nickel mining
As an agency with specific regulatory responsibilities, the DNR’s environmental review and permitting work is based on existing statutes and rules. The DNR issued Minnesota’s nonferrous mining rules in 1993 after an eight-year process with extensive stakeholder involvement. Projects must meet or exceed all legal requirements. Following lengthy environmental review, including robust public involvement, the DNR approved an environmental-impact statement for the project. The DNR issued multiple permits for Minnesota’s first nonferrous mine in November 2018.
The permit to mine and dam safety permits we issued were challenged on multiple fronts. In its eventual decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld nearly all of the DNR’s decisions, clarifying an important question about legal standing, requiring the DNR to establish a fixed term for the permit to mine, and ordering the DNR to hold a contested case hearing on a single issue.
It’s a strength that Minnesotans have diverse and passionate opinions about the DNR’s work. We have the obligation and opportunity to build on that strength by coming together for fact-based dialogue and collaboration to inform the best possible decisions for our collective future. I encourage Minnesotans to take advantage of the many ways to offer input on our work, including our new Commissioners’ Office Hours sessions and online Engage with DNR platform.
I am proud of our dedicated DNR staff who work so hard on behalf of Minnesotans. I share their passion and am honored to lead their work to protect and manage our state’s treasured resources.
Sarah Strommen is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.