MINNEAPOLIS - Carp, wolves, moose, copper and sand will be high on the agenda as the Minnesota Legislature tackles environmental and outdoor issues this session.
Key players agree the Legislature may finally take concrete action to stop the advance of Asian carp up the Mississippi River. The Department of Natural Resources wants to draw the line by building an expensive barrier. And the discussion won't stop there.
The landscape for environmental and natural resource issues has shifted since the last session, when the GOP ran the Legislature. Democrats now control both chambers and the governor's office for the first time since 1990, and they lead all the key committees. But prospects for the shift in power leading to policy changes are tempered by the need to close an estimated $1.1 billion budget deficit.
Lively discussions are expected about wolf hunting and trapping. The state's first wolf season since the animals came off the endangered list ended with 413 dead wolves. Lawmakers may also discuss whether the state should still allow moose hunting as their numbers dwindle. Mining is expected to be part of the debate - copper, nickel and precious metals in northeastern Minnesota and frac sand in the southeast. Climate change could come up, and environmental groups will push for a solar energy standard.
How or even whether those debates might translate into new laws remains to be seen, however, leaving invasive species as one of the more likely areas for change. The DNR has proposed a sound-bubble-and-light barrier in the Twin Cities to try to keep Asian carp from becoming established farther upstream, where their voracious appetites could wreak havoc on popular fisheries. The state needs to find another $8 million to $15 million to build and operate the barrier.
"When people talk about the prospective costs of keeping Asian carp out of our lakes, you have to think not just in terms of what it's going to be to do that, but what are the costs of not doing that, and those costs are enormous," said Jean Wagenius, of Minneapolis, chairman of the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Division.
"Prevention is far cheaper than remedial action," agreed David Dill, of Crane Lake, chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee. "So we've got to be the tip of the sword on prevention, not only on the river but other invasive species as well."
But waging an effective fight against other aquatic invasive species such as zebra mussels will cost more than the state currently gets from its $5 surcharge on boat registrations, said Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation. Efforts to double or triple that fee to $10 or $15 will be revived this session, he said.
Wolf hunting opponents hope the publicity and protests over the recent season will create an opening for them. But they're still looking for someone to sponsor a bill to prevent another hunt, said Howard Goldman, state director of the Humane Society of the United States.
The chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, John Marty, of Roseville, said he expects a "huge discussion" on moose hunting. Minnesota's moose population is less than half what it was in 2006, and the DNR plans a high-tech study to get a better handle on why.
Dill, who owns a moose hunting lodge in Canada, said he's certain hunting isn't the reason, echoing wildlife managers who suspect climate change, diseases and parasites instead.
Environmentalists will campaign for Minnesota to get 10 percent of its energy from solar by 2030, said Margaret Levin, state director for the Sierra Club. She said they're hopeful, and it's not just because of the new leadership. She said the issue crosses partisan lines because Minnesota's solar energy industry is growing.
As plans move forward for copper-nickel-precious metals mining in northeastern Minnesota, environmentalists hope to find a more sympathetic reception for their concerns about the potential impacts on the Boundary Waters and elsewhere.
Gov. Mark Dayton has said he expects frac sand mining in southeastern Minnesota will be "huge" this session. Minnesota has so far left regulation of it largely up to local governments, which "fractivists" say are ill-equipped to deal with the traffic, safety and health impacts.
One reason for the uncertainty over how these issues will develop is the influx of new legislators. Marty said about half his members are freshmen and they haven't had much chance to discuss an agenda. But he said the deficit doesn't preclude tackling other difficult issues.
"Fundamentally, we have enough time in the next five months to deal with the budget and a lot of policy things," Marty said.