Inside the Outdoors: New DNR Commissioner faces tough assignment
Minnesota Governor-elect Tim Walz is now the top state office-holder and has named most of the lieutenants who will serve under him in leading the various state agencies. One who is key to those whose first loves and favorite recreations lie in the outdoors, will be next Natural Resources Commissioner, Sarah Strommen.
She is a former mayor of the City of Ramsey on the north edge of the Twin Cities, and prior to being named to the top DNR post has been serving as Assistant Commissioner in the DNR's Division of Fish & Wildlife, and the Division of Parks & Trails. She also has served in a policy role for the group Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, as well as a leadership position with the State Board of Soil and Water Resources. She holds an undergraduate degree in biology and a graduate degree in environmental management from Duke University.
Needless to say, Strommen has serious natural resources credentials, unlike some past politically-connected DNR appointees we've seen. Her predecessor, Tim Landwehr, who served as DNR Commissioner for eight years under Governor Mark Dayton, was also a natural resources professional. But political appointees have a limited shelf-life, no matter how well qualified, and new governors have typically wanted "their own man" in this role; or more correctly in this case, their own woman—since Strommen is the state's first to be appointed to serve in this role.
Strommen inherits a job that some past DNR Commissioners would probably describe as both a dream and a nightmare. Minnesota is a state that is one of the richest in Nature's bounty. But there is also a history of serious tension over just how to manage its resources. These resources are treasured for human recreation, but they are also potential treasure in the form of profits for agribusiness, mining, forest products, and residential and commercial development. Sometimes profits come at the expense of harming or destroying natural resource values. Who gets preference in resource access and use is a perpetual source of tension.
Strommen will lead an agency that has also been a favorite whipping-boy for state politicians, as well as for some citizens who recreate in the outdoors; among them, hunters and fishermen. County commissioners and state lawmakers duel with the DNR over environmental regulations, and in particular over the conversion of private lands to public land for recreation. Lawmakers with little or no natural resources background try to overrule professional managers to please their voters or political donors, in matters ranging from the stocking of walleyes, to live bait restrictions.
And citizen themselves often blame the DNR first when their hunting or fishing efforts are insufficiently rewarded, or regulations are bothersome or inconvenient. If it has to do with the out-of-doors, somehow the DNR is supposed to fix it. Even if the DNR had the budget and unlimited authority—which it doesn't—it would be impossible to control the forces of Nature in a way that met everyone's expectations.
Natural resource ills are also very much in the public eye. Invasive plants and animals are spreading among the state's most popular lakes and waterways, and so far there seem to be no magic bullets to stop their spread, or reverse infestations. Fatal Chronic Wasting Disease in whitetail deer seems poised to break out of its very limited presence in Southeast Minnesota, despite intensive efforts by the DNR to contain it.
Reducing agricultural runoff polluting our lakes, streams, and wetlands by means of required planting of "buffer strips" adjacent to these bodies of water promises to be one of the biggest hot potatoes that Commissioner Strommen will face early in her tenure. It pits an acknowledged natural resource benefit against what is arguably the most powerful economic-political force in the state—agribusiness—and many expect to see fireworks in the process of resolving it.
So far, the selection of Strommen has been well-received by some prominent voices on the Minnesota outdoor scene, among them the leadership of Pheasants Forever, one of the state's most active and high-profile conservation organizations. Strommen's natural resources background suggests that she may have preservationist and public access threads running through the fabric of her past roles and experiences. Serving as Policy Director for the group Friends of Boundary Waters, outspoken critics of precious-metals mining next door to the wilderness area reinforces this probability. Strommen, a St. Paul native, has also been an associate director of the Minnesota Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization that works with landowners and local communities to protect lands and waters of special scenic and natural value in Minnesota.
Assets ascribed to Strommen include the ability to integrate science and public policy, as well as being an innovative, collaborative administrator. Strommen will need all of that, and more, as she attempts to tackle one of the toughest jobs in Minnesota.