Investment

Eyeing state surplus, Minnesota DNR to try again for huge outdoors investment

Repair crumbling boat ramps. Modernize antiquated fish hatcheries and campgrounds. Expand conservation land and storage for tree seedlings.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ to-do list is substantial, and with Democrats now in control of Minnesota’s House, Senate and governor’s office, the agency has a greater chance of getting the “once-in-a-generation” spending to manage natural resources and improve outdoors access it failed to secure last session.

In the last session, the department asked lawmakers for more than $300 million for one-time projects around the state, but left largely empty-handed after major spending bills collapsed under partisan spending disagreements. The impasse left most of the state’s record budget surplus on the table.

Minnesota’s budget surplus may have shrunk from $9 billion to $7 billion, but it remains a rare opportunity, DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said in an interview.

“Let’s not make the same mistake twice,” Strommen said.

Sen. Scott Dibble, a Minneapolis DFLer and member of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, said the changed Senate makeup will “absolutely” help the DNR’s one-time funding request, which he supports.

“We have the opportunity to have a reasonable, reasoned consideration of the proposals without a reflexive political response because of partisan differences and inherent hostility that our past chair had toward agencies that were focused on the environment,” Dibble said.

The past committee chair was Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, the Alexandria Republican who did not seek re-election. New committee chairs haven’t been announced yet.

Dibble described the DNR’s previous $300 million request as reasonable and modest, considering the DNR draws so little of the state’s general fund money.

“I think Minnesotans will appreciate not having gridlock,” he said.

Strommen said the state hasn’t been able to make major outdoors investments in years and it’s starting to diminish peoples’ experiences, with many of the state’s structures dating to the 1930s. The pandemic drove home how important the state’s natural resources, outdoor recreation and wild areas are to Minnesotans, she said.

The DNR has been struggling to find new revenue as traditional sources such as user fees, fishing licenses and federal taxes on certain outdoor gear fall short.

The governor’s office typically releases the budget proposal in late January. Strommen didn’t provide specifics on what the DNR will request, but it will probably resemble last year’s $316 million request. Since 2023 is an odd-numbered budget year, the DNR will also be asking for its two-year operational budget this time. It’s currently $1.3 billion.

Strommen said she wants to start the conversation about the one-time projects earlier this time. She held up state parks as one example. They need upgrades such as adding electricity and updated bathrooms and showers so they are accessible for people with different abilities.

Plus there’s general deferred maintenance — which the manager of Minnesota’s largest state park, St. Croix State Park east of Hinckley, can attest to.

The park — a favorite for weddings, family reunions, church and school groups — is a National Historic Landmark with nearly 200 buildings, many dating to the 1930s. Work is constant: water wells fill in with sand and buildings need new roofs, siding and electrical systems.

“There’s all kind of things that need to be done,” said park manager Rick Dunkley.

Dunkley said that some structures are so dilapidated they can’t be used. A shower-bathroom in one camp area has been out of service for 17 years, wrecked by an old plumbing mishap, he said. Campers often ask if it has been fixed, he said, and they have to hike to use a facility much farther away. Some cabins are in rough shape, too.

“The windows are falling out of them they’re so old,” he said.

The breakdown of the DNR’s spending proposal will likely be different this time around. Last year’s proposal included, among other things: $65 million for buildings, bridges and wells; $26.5 million for land acquisition; $21 million for office buildings and natural resource facilities; $12 million for a new visitor center for Lake Vermillion State Park; and $10 million for fish hatcheries.

The state’s boat ramps are a simple example of needed upgrades, Strommen said. Many were built decades ago when boats looked different, invasive species were less of a concern and water levels weren’t swinging up and down as much as they now do with climate change, she said. Too often boaters encounter crumbling concrete ramps and docks that are too high or too low.

At the DNR’s State Forest Nursery near Akeley in Hubbard County, the lack of storage for seedlings and “antiquated” equipment for harvesting seeds limit the nursery’s ability to meet growing demand for trees, said Amy Kay Kerber, the nursery’s legislative affairs and outreach supervisor. Tree planting is a key strategy to fight climate change.

The DNR will produce only about 4 million seedlings this year, she said, “way below” its production capacity of 10 million.

“Given the demand for planting more trees… it’s going to be to everyone’s benefit if we can get can closer to that cap,” Kerber said.

Likewise, the DNR’s historic Waterville Hatchery in Le Sueur County is showing its age. It’s one of the state’s largest cool water hatcheries and the main source of walleye for southern Minnesota. It raises 45 million walleye fry each year, as well as about 220,000 muskie fry every year — 30% to 50% of the state’s total, said hatchery supervisor Craig Soupir.

But it was built in the early 1950s as a much smaller facility, and it’s inadequate for the needs of a modern hatchery, Soupir said. Part of the hatchery is an old converted garage. Rebar sticks through the concrete in the fish ponds, and inside, water routinely sloshes out of tanks across the floor, he said.

The hatchery also needs greater biosecurity measures so it can filter water coming in and out of the hatchery to control against diseases, pathogens and invasive species, he said. They’ve lost fish in the last few summers due to suspected pathogens in the water.

But one of the biggest problems, Soupir said, is that they don’t have the ability to control water temperatures, making it more difficult to raise fish.

“Not being able to control water at a fish hatchery is pretty critical,” he said. “This is such an old facility.”

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