Beyond the spreadsheets, the various dedicated funds and the rows of line-item expenditures contained in a whopping 235 pages, Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed 2022-23 budget recommendation for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources was drafted to meet the increased demand and interest for getting outdoors during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
So says DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen.
“It really is framed around what we’ve seen over the past year with people using the outdoors and in just huge numbers,” Strommen said this week in a phone interview. “The governor crafted his entire budget recommendation for the state of Minnesota around COVID-19 recovery and making sure that Minnesota was in a position to emerge, strong, out of the pandemic.”
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Strommen said the roughly $1.2 billion DNR budget recommendation for the 2022-23 biennium addresses four priorities: Connecting people to the outdoors, mitigating climate change, proactively managing natural resources and addressing operational needs.
“What that means for DNR is making sure that we are recognizing that more Minnesota families than ever before relied, during the pandemic, on the mental and physical health benefits of our public lands and waters and natural resources,” Strommen said. “The proposal really was framed to ensure that DNR can continue to serve all Minnesotans with access to outdoor recreation, robust public engagement, proactive management of our natural resources, both for economic and environmental and, as I said, those health benefits.”
The clock is ticking because the Legislature is due to adjourn Monday, May 17, and a House-Senate conference committee as of late this week still had to work out the differences in their respective budget proposals for the DNR and other state agencies.
Based on published reports, the odds of the session ending on time appear unlikely, as clashes over policy items impede budget discussions.
The House bill that includes the DNR budget largely funds the governor’s agency initiatives, Strommen said, while the Senate version proposes a $9.8 million reduction in General Fund spending. That would be achieved either through program cuts or shifting some of the spending to dedicated funds such as the DNR’s Game and Fish Fund, which is funded largely through hunting and fishing license dollars, she said.
One key example would shift funding for chronic wasting disease management from the General Fund to the Game and Fish Fund. Walz has recommended a one-time General Fund investment of $1 million for the Adopt a Dumpster program, which encourages proper disposal of deer remains to prevent spread of CWD, and surveillance to benefit deer health and deer management.
Shifting that spending to the Game and Fish Fund would place the burden of CWD management on deer hunters, Strommen said, leaving less money for other deer management work.
The recent discovery of CWD in a farmed deer in Beltrami County – the farthest north the fatal deer disease has been documented in Minnesota – adds a further sense of urgency to the DNR’s CWD management efforts, Strommen said.
“That’s such a geographic jump in where we have seen the disease, and that now means we’re going to have to do surveillance activity up in that area surrounding that facility in Beltrami County,” she said. “That's the heart of deer country up there so it’s concerning, and we want to be proactive on that.
“That’s certainly going to mean we're going to need the resources to be aggressive and proactive.”
As outlined on page 2 of the governor’s DNR budget plan, the agency operates out of 50 different funds, with the General Fund providing 24% of the DNR’s budget.
Shifting General Fund spending to dedicated sources “is not the kind of long-term investment that we’re hoping to see in Minnesota’s outdoor resources,” Strommen said.
“The problem is that many of these dedicated funds have long-term trends that are declining,” she said. “And so, while there might be a temporary balance in them, with many of those funds, we have been purposely underspending or we have been proposing to raise fees to keep those funds healthy.”
Such is the case with the DNR’s State Park and Water Recreation accounts. The governor’s budget proposes raising state park annual vehicle permit fees by $10, to $45, and daily vehicle permits by $3, to $10. Watercraft registration fees would increase from 22% to 45% based on the type and length of watercraft.
The proposed increases would raise $1.7 million to bolster the DNR’s State Park Account and $3.7 million to address deficits in the Water Recreation Account. State park vehicle permit fees last increased in 2017, and watercraft registration fees haven’t increased since 2006, Strommen said.
“Those investments in water recreation really are not keeping pace with the rising cost of maintaining and improving our watercraft access sites – aging infrastructure as well as evolving user needs and expectations,” she said. “All of those things are really exceeding the funding that we have.”
The governor’s budget recommendations reflect the value Minnesotans place on natural resources and the outdoors, Strommen said. Without additional funds, the quality of services will suffer at a time when demands on the state’s outdoor offerings have never been higher.
“I think the question is – if you asked people who are out using those resources – ‘If you come back next year, do you want the same level of quality experience, do you want a better quality of experience or do you want a lesser quality of experience?’” Strommen said. “I think very few Minnesotans would say they want a lesser quality of experience and fewer services.”