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Senate Environment Committee begins natural resources reorganization discussion

(Jan 6, 2010) - In November 2008, 1.6 million voters approved an amendment to constitutionally dedicate funding for the preservation and protection of our state’s wildlife habitat, lakes and rivers, parks, and cultural heritage. Minnesotans’ willingness to raise taxes even in tight economic times is a signal of the value they place on our natural resources.

The next step in protecting our environment and natural resources is to examine the way we deliver natural resource governance. The structure the state has in place for managing our natural resources has evolved in many layers over decades. There are a number of state departments and agencies, together with local government entities, that share environment and natural resources oversight and enforcement responsibilities. Many of these agencies and departments have overlapping jurisdiction and local governments also perform some of the same functions.

The Senate Environment Committee has begun to hold hearings to take a comprehensive look at natural resource management in Minnesota, from state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Pollution Control Agency (PCA), and the Board of Water and Soil Resources, to local government units, to non-profit groups.

Our goal with these hearings is to take a good, hard look at revitalizing the mission of conservation and make our natural resources government more effective and efficient for future generations.

The first hearing on natural resources reorganization was held at the Capitol on December 7. The hearing included overviews of previous reorganization proposals such as: the Minnesota Governor’s Conservation Legacy Council Report, the Minnesota Environmental Initiative (MEI) Land and Water Policy Report, and a report of the Citizen’s League Water Policy Study Committee. The committee also heard comments and reflection from some key figures in recent natural resources policy debates: former PCA Commissioners Grant Merritt and Peder Larson and former DNR Deputy Commissioner Ron Nargang, as well as testimony from citizens.

Those who came to testify at the December hearing gave us a wide range of recommendations concerning reorganization challenges – some agreeing and competing ideas came through:

  • create a citizen-based conservation commission;
  • develop an action plan with a shared vision for making critical improvements to our environment;
  • coordinate management from state and local agencies and communities;
  • improve communication between levels of government; and
  • build a collaborative model of governance and redesign government roles and responsibilities based on this collaborative model.

This list of ideas is exactly what we hoped to generate from these hearings. It is our challenge, as legislators, to help facilitate a ground up process to examine how conservation functions. The recommendations we hear during the interim will greatly assist us as we consider forming natural resources reorganization legislation during the upcoming 2010 Legislative Session.

This open discussion on how government can better serve Minnesotans and the outdoors will continue on Friday, Jan. 15 as the Senate Environment Committee travels to Bemidji. This meeting will offer local citizens, who otherwise might not be able to make it down to the Capitol, the opportunity to have their voices heard on natural resources management.

The Jan. 15 meeting will take place at the Indian Resource Center on the Bemidji State University campus from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. and is open to the public. The committee will hear from a variety of government agencies, private organizations and Minnesota citizens including: former DNR Commissioner Allen Garber, the Builders Association of Minnesota, the Association of Minnesota Counties, Bemidji State University natural resources faculty, tribal representatives, lake associations and local government representatives.

As we trusted the people to pass the Legacy Amendment, so too, I think, can we trust the people of Minnesota to inject new energy into our mission of reforming natural resources governance. Our history of leading in the area of natural resources will guide us as we work to make government more efficient and effective so future generations can carry on Minnesota’s outdoor heritage.

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