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DNR at the Brink
by Leif Enger
January 5, 2000
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The cost of fishing and hunting may go up in 2000. The Department of Natural Resources wants to raise license fees, a crucial revenue source in its budget. The DNR says if the Legislature doesn't do so, Minnesota's outdoors will suffer.

You may recall the agency made a similar plea to lawmakers last year. It didn't take, and since then the DNR has cut staff and programs. Now, officials say, the fat is gone and they're cutting into the bone.

The DNR says wildlife population increases can continue only if the state continues funding progressive wildlife management programs. Minnesota's nationally recognized Reinvest in Minnesota program, which began in 1986, was formed to reinvest state tax dollars gained from hunting and fishing expenditures into land and water that support these activities. RIM has received only one-fifth the amount needed to protect and restore habitat, according to one DNR official.
IN 1949, Minnesota had 147 game wardens. And, says Brainerd enforcement supervisor Tom Provost, that's actually what they were.
Provost: Ninety percent of what we did then was strictly game and fish enforcement. We were the game warden. We were checking fishermen and trappers, hunters, that was what we did.
To say those duties have mushroomed is an understatement. A quarter-million more people hunt in Minnesota than did 50 years ago, 700,000 more go fishing. Add to that the development of snowmobiles, ATVs, highpowered boats and hundreds of lakeshore ordinances. The only number that's actually shrunk, is the number of officers who handle it all: from 147 in 1949, to 130 today.
Provost: We're very desperate. We have close to 20 vacancies at this time, and we don't have money available right now to even put a small class together. In the next few years it could get as high as 50 vacancies.
The weakened enforcement arm of the DNR is the most visible example of what officials call agency-wide belt tightening. In 1999, the DNR reduced its lake-mapping and fish management programs. It trimmed efforts to minimize damage from nuisance bears and deer. It scrapped next year's moose-hunting season. At a recent public meeting in Brainerd, regional administrator C.B. Bylander faced a room packed with outdoor enthusiasts to argue for what in the past has been an unpopular idea to prop up the DNR's budget by raising hunting and fishing license fees.
Bylander: Managing the outdoors is like maintaining an automobile. You can drive and drive it and drive it, but sometime you have to make a little investment.
When Bylander set forth specifics - fishing licenses would go up $1, small game licenses $2, and deer licenses $3, to be matched with general-fund money - there were few discontented rumbles. Though the agency perennially weathers accusations of inefficiency or incompetence, most of those at the meeting favored the increases. Some almost demanded them.

There seems, in fact, to be wide support for the proposal. Most of the state's hunting and fishing clubs are actively lobbying for it; Governor Ventura likes it. But some legislators say it's odd to talk about raising fees in a time of budget surpluses. When the DNR asked for similar increases last year, representative Mary Liz Hoberg offered the amendment removing the hikes from the final bill. Hoberg agrees the agency needs more money, but says it should come from the general fund, not license fees.
Hoberg: To what degree is the sporting community subsidizing tourism, birdwatchers, trail users, park users? And is that right, from a policy perspective? I'm not hardheaded about this, but I do think it's a fairness issue, and we have to be fair to the sporting community.
As for those who are loudly asking that their fees be raised, Hoberg suggests they are members of activist sporting groups like the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and a tiny percentage of those who actually hunt and fish.

Another legislator, Kris Hasskamp of Crosby, who organized the Brainerd meeting, says she, too, would place more of the burden on the general fund. But since voting against the increases last year, Hasskamp says she's become convinced the need is real; she's prepared to reverse herself in the 2000 session.
Hasskamp: I sent letters to everyone who's ever written to me, telling them I needed to hear about this issue. And I haven't heard from one person except those who want the increase, based on their knowledge of the facts.
The DNR will hold seven public meetings around the state this month to try to build public support for its funding proposal.