Despite our ability today to navigate with “apps” for our computers, smart phones and vehicles, I continue to keep, use and love real maps. One of my most used came to me years ago in the mail from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Fish & Wildlife Division, Lafayette Street, St. Paul. Its title is “Minnesota Wildlife Lands,” and it contains a comprehensive listing and details on the more than 1,400 state Wildlife Management Areas, known in hunter shorthand as WMAs.
WMAs are scattered liberally across the state from north to south, east to west, in the prairie and agriculture belt, the transition zone of the central hardwoods, the bluff country of the Southeast, and the rugged and heavily forested Arrowhead of the Northeast. All of the state’s varied habitats and ecological zones are represented.
WMAs are public lands that are open to hunting in season, and to a host of other outdoor recreations the year-around. Their most consistent long-term funding source has been a surcharge on state hunting licenses. Conservation groups have also contributed fundraising dollars to help acquire them. Additional funding sources have included the fees we pay for the decorative Critical Habitat license plates on our vehicles, the state Outdoor Heritage Fund, and the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.
Management for game and nongame wildlife and recreational values has been WMAs’ purpose for the 68 years the program has been in existence. But it appears that other priorities could dilute that purpose, based on evidence revealed in an internal memorandum recently shared with the press in a manner suggestive of Wiki-leaks (reported Aug. 12 in the Duluth News-Tribune, Aug. 16 in Minnesota Outdoor News). The memorandum was authored by 28 state wildlife managers. It amounts to a letter of protest from them to recently-appointed DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen.
In the letter, the wildlife managers protested the DNR setting targets for timber sales on WMAs that they believe will be harmful to wildlife. Objections included fears of harvesting too many acres, and cutting the wrong trees. DNR administration has reportedly placed a gag order on these wildlife managers, instructing them not to talk to news media about the issue. This order is believed to be the reason their memorandum to the Commissioner was leaked.
Not only has this leaked memorandum provided details of the wildlife managers’ objections, but several recently-retired wildlife managers with decades-long experience—who now have little to fear in the way of supervisory retaliation—have come forward publicly to echo and lend weight to the 28 managers’ protestations.
To be fair to DNR Commissioner Strommen, the machinery that has set this conflict in motion predates both her and current Governor Tim Walz. It was conceived during the administration of former Governor Mark Dayton. The objective was, and is, to increase logging on state lands over the next decade to make up for a decline in available timber on private lands. The plan is for the state to make available for purchase 870,000 cords of timber each year from state-managed lands.
Some may ask why the state should make available a publicly owned natural resource to private industry in the first place—unless the cutting has identifiable public benefits. Others would point to a need for the raw materials that timber harvest provides to other industries, like residential and commercial construction, the producers of wood fiber products, like paper, not to mention the collective economic benefits of this commercial web.
WMAs have become ensnared in this web because there is only so much state-owned land from which to collect those 870,000 cords of wood committed to the timber industry. The prescription for meeting this commitment includes 12% to come from the state’s WMAs. In September the actual sale process will begin. DNR administration has said that cutting on each WMA will be determined by a team from several natural resource disciplines. But—and an important “but”—it’s been made clear that wildlife managers can be overruled. This would be a departure from the recognized mission of WMAs, which over any other objectives has historically been management for wildlife values.
Examples of wildlife manager objections in the memorandum to Commissioner Strommen included the proposed cutting of mature oak trees, whose acorn crop was described as a valuable wildlife food source. Or the clear-cutting of tamarack trees in an area of the state where this tree species is already uncommon. Another objection focused on the need to retain old-growth trees in order to preserve a mixed-age forest, needed by some wildlife in their different life stages.
While there may be some level of science behind the timber cutting formula, assigning to state WMAs an arbitrary 12% of the 870,000 cord annual state lands harvest does not seem science-based, but political in nature. Over a decades-long association with career DNR professionals, I’ve come to respect them and to give them the benefit of the doubt. But perhaps such faith is best placed with the agency’s in-the-field professionals, rather than administrators who may be under pressure to live up to political commitments.
Paul Bunyan and his axe are one of the most frequent symbolisms found in Minnesota lore and history. The value of timber harvest in the right places and at the right times is beyond challenge. But to undercut a mission as longstanding and important as that of the state’s Wildlife Management Areas to serve any private industry can’t be defended, or accepted. The state’s sportsmen and women, and the organizations to which they belong, need to speak up and stand up in opposition to this ill-conceived bargain.