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Sam Cook: Legislature showing little inclination to increase outdoors funding

Fisheries workers with the Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources net walleyes from an electro-fishing boat during a walleye population assessment on the St. Louis River in 2015. Minnesota DNR officials are asking the Minnesota Legislature to increase prices on some fishing and hunting licenses to support DNR work, including fisheries research. File photo

We have arrived at a bewildering crossroads in Minnesota outdoors legislation.

For weeks, hunting, angling and other outdoors groups have been urging state legislators to raise the fees for hunting and fishing licenses, state park entries and other activities that support natural resources management in Minnesota.

The Department of Natural Resources has made its case for those increases. Gov. Mark Dayton included those fee increase proposals in the budget he presented to the Legislature. Nearly 50 hunting, angling and conservation groups statewide wrote letters to legislative leaders urging them to consider raising fees.

But those pleas have gained almost no traction in the Republican-controlled House and Senate. With only a couple of exceptions, House and Senate bills moving through the Legislature have called for no outdoor fee increases.

"It's bizarre," said Rich Staffon, president of the Duluth chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America. "It's a mystery to me."

Staffon knows better than most how important those license dollars are. He retired in 2012 after serving for 28 years as the DNR area wildlife manager in Cloquet.

Staffon said local legislators support the fee increases, but the legislative majority apparently does not.

"My impression is that it's part of this anti-any-kind-of-tax-or-fee thinking," Staffon said. "They don't want to see an increase in the cost of anything."

That position might be more understandable if the state were scraping for cash. Instead, Minnesota is fortunate to have a $1.6 billion budget surplus. Not that there aren't plenty of other worthy ways to spend that money. The legislative session ends May 22.

Perhaps most legislators have not heard directly from their outdoors constituency. Maybe these days you have to parade through the Capitol in blaze orange by the hundreds or thousands to get a message across.

The fee increases most sportsmen and women are seeking help fund the very fabric of Minnesotans' outdoor lives. Revenue from license sales and registration fees makes up much of the funding for DNR wildlife habitat projects, fisheries research, wildlife research, boat landings, state park campgrounds, trail maintenance, invasive species prevention and enforcement efforts.

Minnesotans clearly value the outdoors. In 2008, when times were tough across the country, the state's residents overwhelmingly passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment. That's right. Minnesotans voted to increase the state sales tax on themselves to raise nearly $300 million a year for fish and wildlife habitat, parks, trails and the arts.

This is who we are. We love the outdoors. We bust our behinds all week, and then we get outside. We hunt deer and birds and turkeys. We catch walleyes and sunfish and trout. We snowmobile and ride four-wheelers and pedal mountain bikes. We camp and hike and look at the stars.

Who would deny us the exceptional quality of those experiences we have come to expect? The Department of Natural Resources is already down about 40 positions statewide — biologists and conservation officers and technicians. State park use is at record highs. Anglers want current survey information on the lakes they fish. Deer hunters want more deer on the land.

Already, tight budgets are affecting basic DNR operations.

"We're putting patches on patches on our waders because we have no money," said Deserae Hendrickson, DNR area fisheries supervisor at French River. "We've had to cut down on our (lake) assessments because we don't have money to drive to do them."

If we are not, as a state, willing to pony up for the outdoor life we love, we might as well send the loons packing. We might as well write off the struggling moose population. We might as well tell all the kids to stay inside and play video games because the outdoors just isn't where it's happening anymore.

Is that the state we want to become? Is that who we are?

And that's only half the current problem. Tucked into other bills moving through the Legislature are provisions that rob the Legacy Amendment dollars we voted for and use them for purposes that we never intended. Those Legacy funds were supposed to supplement — not supplant — existing sources of outdoor funding. All of us who voted for that constitutional amendment should be incensed about that.

Minnesota's outdoor experience defines our way of life. It is our passion, our renewal, our inspiration. From frogs to forests, from grouse to geese, from crappies to campgrounds, the outdoor life runs through us like a river.

Who would let that river wither to a trickle?

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.

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