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Bill takes aim at state tree nurseries

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ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources may have to shed some of its leaves if a Minnesota House bill passes.

The bill, being considered by the Game, Fish and Forestry Division, would begin a five-year process of dismantling and selling the DNR's state-run seedling nurseries. The DNR would close either the General Andrews Nursery in Willow River or the Badoura Nursery in Akeley. The other facility would shrink over the five-year period and would eventually be sold.

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The bill's author, Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said the DNR's nurseries present unfair competition with the private sector. Among his concerns, McNamara said, is that the two facilities were operating at only 15 percent capacity, with 200 full-time and seasonal workers, an "astronomical amount of employees."

The core mission of the DNR is not selling trees, said McNamara, a long-time landscape contractor.

Forest Management and Protection Section Manager Olin Phillips said that only eight employees work on a full-time, permanent basis, and 10 more work more than half time.

The rest work varying lengths from two weeks to the entire season, Phillips said. These are the people who pull the seedlings out of the ground and brush the dirt off, Phillips said. One is 70 years old, he said.

Phillips called McNamara's bill a "drastic, short-term action." He said the stakeholders should sit down, look at the long-term effects and work out the structure of a partnership between the public and private sectors.

"Let's pursue the round-table process, see what recommendations come out," Phillips said.

Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, sits on the Game, Fish and Forestry Division and agrees that there needs to be further discussion, and said he wants to see more information concerning how much money would be saved by closing and selling the hatcheries.

Long-term planning is important, because looking at the short term could "create unintended consequences," Falk said.

Phillips said the state has been raising seedlings for 80 years.

"If you look over that 80 years, over time the statutes have been altered" to reduce competition with private industries, he said.

According to information given to the committee, the DNR instituted "a 10 million seedling cap on the annual sale of seedlings produced from state forest nurseries" in 1997. Another law states that the DNR can only sell seedlings for conservation purposes, and cannot sell any trees for ornamental purposes.

"In their efforts to stay even, they have kept behind the cutting edge," McNamara said of the nurseries, which were required by a 1984 Minnesota law to become financially self-sufficient.

According to the 2007 State Forest Nursery Program legislative report, it cost $2.2 million to operate the nurseries, and they earned $2.7 million.

Phillips explained that the state nurseries "focus on a good-quality, native, known seed sources, at a reasonable cost," with the goal of supporting Minnesota's ecosystem. He said the nurseries do not necessarily focus on growing the plants that will generate lots of money, but rather "concentrate on species native to Minnesota forests, whether they're money makers or not."

Phillips is concerned about the private sector's ability to grow conservation trees, particularly if they lose money on it.

James Parthun is a University of Minnesota journalism student who is writing stories for the Minnesota Capitol Bureau. Forum Communications Co. owns both the bureau and the Bemidji Pioneer.

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