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State Senate hearing: Kinder, gentler natural resources management

Senate Environment and Natural Resources Chairman Satveer Chaudhary, center, DFL-Fridley, readies to ask a question during a hearing Friday in Bemidji on efforts to merge the state's natural resources agencies. Senate panelists also included, at left, Sen. Pat Pariseau, R-Farmington, and Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Minnesotans want to protect their natural resources but also an easier way to navigate the agencies and permit processes to use or build in the natural resources, state senators heard Friday.

More than a dozen people, including a former Department of Natural Resources commissioners, testified before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee on the concept of merging agencies that deal with the environment.

It was held at the American Indian Resource Center on the Bemidji State University campus.

One bill, introduced last year by Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, would create an organization advisory committee to study a new administrative structure of environment and natural resource policy, geared toward an effective and efficient agency to work with state and local government.

"Sen. Olson's bill really set the ball in motion for examining how we manage natural resources in general," Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, panel chairman, said in an interview.

"We are getting a ground-up process that takes into account the views of all Minnesotans, whether it be environmentalists, sportsmen, builders, business, field practitioner, or just the everyday citizen on what we can do better," he said.

The Bemidji hearing was the second of a series of hearings to gain that public input, Chaudhary said. "We want to listen to people before we do anything."

Something as big as reinventing a host of state agencies that deal with the environment needs to come from the people, he said.

"A lot of people talked about the need to have a user-friendly, accessible system, whether it be water permitting or building permitting or access to any issue that might come up," Chaudhary said of Friday's hearing.

"An other recurring theme is how we manage our water," he said, 'whether it be for a new construction project or keeping the water clean from an adjacent farm, or the quantity of our water. ... Minnesota's most precious resource may be that we're taking for granted."

Several people representing various tribal natural resources departments say they need a liaison from state government to tribal sovereign governments. They have time, just as individuals do, going from one office to another for information or action on an issue.

"We do have a lot of problems working with people out of St. Paul," said Mike Swan, director of natural resources for the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. "With the DNR, we have a great working relationship with the area and regional offices, but past that ..."

Tribal objectives are to protect the resources "and you have the same concept," he said. "Minnesota is blessed with abundant resources, but it also has a limit to what you can do."

Communication is the biggest problem, Swan said.

Others talked about creating a one-stop agency for various permits. Bemidji contractor Howie Zetah called for a uniform permit application form for building permits statewide.

"I believe nothing is fundamentally flawed in the organization of DNR," said Allen Garber, DNR commissioner under Gov. Jesse Ventura from 1999-2002. "It's really about the people; it's about the commissioner, it's about the division directors, it's about the field people. The quality of the people means results or not results; it means accountability or not accountability."

The quality of leadership and management in the upper echelon are more important than the technical skills of natural resource workers, Garber said.

"There's a wealth of knowledge both inside and outside the DNR about technical issues, but there isn't a wealth of knowledge about how to lead effectively or how to manage and how to novitiate people," he said.

"Reorganizing the DNR won't make decisions any easier," Garber said. "The reason decisions are so hard to make in the DNR is because the DNR career employees are very cautious because most of the issues are so highly charged, they are reluctant to make decisions because they're afraid that there'll be repercussions from their decisions."

Garber suggests setting up a complaint office to investigate allegations against DNR employees in a timely manner. "Every big organization needs to have some people in their organization . ... No. 1, it makes employees feel like they're not out there and don't know what's going to happen to them."

He also called for more accountability in the Enforcement Division of the DNR.

"I think it is fair for me to proclaim that we, the Legislature and Minnesota counties share a love of Minnesota's environment and natural resources," "aid Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene, also an Association of Minnesota Counties board member.

But he used the adage," Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the soup," to describe actions between the state and counties in resource management. ""When it comes to the area of Minnesota water policy and improving water quality, there are too many cooks in the kitchen."

He cited a 2007 state Legislative Auditor report that studied watershed management and found 25 federal, state and local entities that list clean water as part of their mission, their reason for existing. "With so many participants in this arena, it is simply impossible o define a clear, coherent and accountable clean water policy for the state."

Vene also cited the struggle to fund projects, but rather "studies" that go nowhere. "We are dedicating such a high percentage of our clean water dollars toward administration, studies, regulatory reviews and similar activities that we have no resources left over to actually complete 'on-the-ground' projects."

Chris Parthun, director of the Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District, said more decisions need to be left to the local level, such as with SWCDs, which work with the watershed in mind, not political boundaries.

"It is paramount that Minnesota's technical delivery system, through its local SWCDs, is also maintained and enhanced," Parthun said, adding that it is the SWCDs that work with landowners. "Our landowners are putting their natural and financial resources on the line for our benefit and our children's benefit.