In the Spotlight

News & Features
Go to Session 2003
DocumentSession 2003
DocumentBudget and Taxes
DocumentHigher Education
DocumentK-12 Education
DocumentHealth and Welfare
DocumentPublic Safety
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
"Clean Gene" takes over at DNR
Larger view
"Gene Merriam has the temperament to reach that critical balance between protecting, enhancing and enjoying our natural resources while supporting the state's economic and recreational demands," Gov. Pawlenty said of his DNR commissioner. (MPR Photo/Michael Khoo)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty Friday appointed former DFL Sen. Gene Merriam to lead the state Department of Natural Resources. Merriam served for 22 years in the Senate, and is now a vice president for ECM Publishers. He was a key player in the Senate, heading the Finance Committee and the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. As DNR commissioner he will face a number of challenges, including a shrinking budget and a host of competing interests.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Department of Natural Resources has a broad mandate -- to oversee hunting and fishing regulations, the park system, forestry management, and state fisheries. As a result, Gov. Pawlenty says guiding the agency is one of the more demanding jobs in state government. "In Minnesota we have a constitutional right to hunt and fish. We have thousands and thousands of Minnesotans whose livelihoods are dependent upon the land directly or indirectly, including agriculture and sporting opportunities, and tourism and snowmobiles, and forest products and on down the list. In Minnesota natural resources aren't just a hobby, they're a way of life," Pawlenty says.

Merriam will face several difficult issues. They include managing the use of all-terrain vehicles on state lands, and reaching out to outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom say they had a hard time connecting with the previous DNR administration.

Former Gov. Jesse Ventura's DNR Commissioner, Allen Garber, was an FBI agent and former police chief with little experience in natural resource issues. Pawlenty emphasized that Merriam was, by his own account, an avid hunter and fisherman. Merriam says he'll work to repair relations with the outdoor community.

"We're going to work hard to reconnect with those constituent groups, that we can assure hunters and anglers and other constituent groups that their department is paying attention to their concerns," Merriam says.

Merriam says a chief complaint centers on the agency's use of hunting, fishing, and recreation fees for programs that don't directly support those activities. He says he'll make sure the fees that Minnesotans pay will be reinvested appropriately. Mark Johnson of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association says he's pleased with what he's heard so far.

"When you're looking at $25 a license ... and you're looking at half a million licenses sold a year, or half a million deer hunters, that's a big chunk of change going into the DNR," Johnson says. "Where the money is exactly being spent, I don't believe that we've ever really been informed. The majority of it, yes, maybe 60 percent. But where's that other 40 percent going? And what's it being distributed to?"

Johnson says he expects a better accounting of DNR spending under Merriam -- and called Merriam an excellent choice. Environmental groups are equally excited.

"His committment to the mission of natural resources protection is unquestioned," says Don Arnosti, the policy director for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. "He is absolutely Clean Gene -- that reputation. He knows his numbers, he's thorough ... It is terrific that Governor Pawlenty has made this move and recognized the talent."

But Merriam's record cuts both ways. Merriam served on the board of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy when the group sued over the expansion of a paper mill in International Falls. The suit failed, but timber interests say the suit was a cause of concern.

Wayne Brandt is the executive vice president of the Minnesota Timber Producers. He says despite some misgivings, he believes Merriam will follow Pawlenty's lead on supporting economic development.

"He is working within an administration that has a strong committment to promoting manufacturing jobs in forestry," says Brandt. "So, I am sure that we will be able to work together. And I'm sure that we will achieve good results."

Brandt says he was also encouraged by Pawlenty's choice for deputy DNR commissioner, State Rep. Mark Holsten, R-Stillwater. Holsten chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee. But he'll step down from his legislative seat to begin his new post at DNR.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects