Budget surplus prompts DNR to invest ‘once in a generation’ in out of state

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A boatload of cash — $315 million to be exact — is what the state’s natural resources need, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen said this week.

When the Legislative Assembly convenes on Monday, Strommen will advocate for “once in a generation” investment in conservation lands, outdoor infrastructure, fisheries, wetlands and better access to recreation areas.

Strommen unveiled Governor Tim Walz’s proposed $315 million DNR spending package during a meeting this week with reporters. Surety and additional spending amounts will be debated by lawmakers over the coming months amid the state’s historic budget surplus of $7.7 billion.

Strommen and DNR Assistant Commissioner Bob Meier described spending categories ranging from dam removal, stream restoration, hatchery upgrades, boat launch improvements water, native plant restoration, a new state park visitor center, and wildfire suppression.

“There’s something for everyone,” Meier said.

He cannot remember a time when so much money was available directly from the legislature – without borrowing – for the acquisition of public lands. He said it was unprecedented in his long tenure.

According to Walz’s spending proposal, an additional $24 million would go toward purchasing land to support recreation and conservation. Another $10 million would go to “grassland improvement and wetland restoration in wildlife management areas.” Even more money for the expansion of public lands is provided for in the bond bill.

Meier said the DNR will again favor land projects aimed at creating or expanding large complexes. It is a quality that helps make patches more resilient to climate change and more productive as wildlife habitat.

The governor’s package for the DNR breaks down into two categories: $221.4 million in traditional bail money coupled with $94 million from his supplemental budget. Expenditure designs in both categories are focused on one-time items such as tarmac improvements needed at the DNR’s Hibbing Air Tanker Base.

As in other years, the legislature could approve significantly less than the amount proposed in the governor’s budget. In 2018, for example, the DNR’s proposed capital budget recommended by the Governor was $171 million. In the end, the Legislative Assembly appropriated $78.6 million.

This year, the Governor’s proposed budget includes $7.8 million for apron repairs and other aviation infrastructure needs against wildfires at the other aerial tanker base. from the DNR to Brainerd.

“This is a very critical investment … and an example of the diversity of assets we have at DNR that are in poor condition,” Strommen said.

Likewise, the state hatchery in Waterville needs a complete renovation, and Walz’s budget for the DNR includes $10 million for stocking facility upgrades. Waterville is located in southern Minnesota along the Cannon River in Le Sueur County. The hatchery has been essential to recreational fishing in the region and its state-of-the-art revitalization would help maintain an “incredible economic impact,” Strommen said.

Asked which areas of the budget are most likely to elicit opposition from lawmakers, Strommen said most of the friction would relate to the amount of proposed spending, not the value of individual projects.

“This is an ambitious budget and rightly so”, said the Commissioner. The proposed investment is consistent with the high value Minnesotans place on natural resources and outdoor recreation, she said.

In terms of wildlife management investments, Meier said the credits include money for water control structures in wetlands capable of growing wild rice and attracting more ducks and of geese. In state parks and wildlife management areas managed by the DNR, the agency wants to improve access and signage for visitors. Additionally, Meier said, some of the land acquisition money would be spent reclaiming marginal cropland that could be restored to prairie pothole-like waterfowl habitat.

Other DNR investments supported in the Governor’s budget include:

  • $5.55 million to replace tree seedlings lost to drought in public and private forests.
  • $4.5 million to local and tribal governments to plant and manage community shade trees.
  • $12 million for the continued development of Lake Vermilion-Sudan Underground Mine State Park. Most of the money would fund the construction of a new visitor center that would not only serve recreation, but also pay homage to the area’s mining heritage.
  • $5.5 million for a program that provides cost-sharing and technical assistance to private woodlot owners who wish to manage their forests for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
  • $2 million for structural improvements to shore-based fishing.

“These are important investments that will connect Minnesotans to the outdoors and keep our quality of life high across the state,” Strommen said.

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