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Ag panel passes Olson natural resources alignment bill

Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, testifies Tuesday before the Senate Agriculture and Veterans Committee, which passed her bill calling for an advisory task force to study the reorganization of several state agencies handling natural resources issues. At left is Senate Environment and Natural Resources Chairman Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

ST. PAUL -- After expanding a task force with more farm presence, a Minnesota Senate ag panel Tuesday approved Sen. Mary Olson's bill study restructuring natural resources agencies.

The bill now moves to the Senate State and Local Government Committee before a final stop at the Senate Rules Committee and the Senate floor.

"I don't anticipate any problems with the State and Local Government Committee," Olson, DFL-Bemidji, said Tuesday. "At the Rules Committee, money will have to be attached."

That could be the most serious hurdle, as a Legislature without money might find it difficult to provide funding for Olson's 26-member task force that will be recommending changes to lawmakers.

The bill creates an environment and natural resources structure committee to advise the Legislature and governor on an organization for state agencies and local governments to administer environmental and natural resource policies.

The Senate Agriculture and Veterans Committee added to Olson's 18-member panel eight specific farm -related organizations who would name their representative, plus made arrangements for lawmakers to sit on the panel.

The task force would have two years to "come back to the Legislature ultimately with some recommendations on how we can have natural resources management aligned in our state," Olson testified before the ag panel, chaired for the bill hearing by Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook.

Rural legislators have had multiple contacts over the years from constituents "who are sometimes confused about where to go, whether it's for permitting or other issues like putting together a lake management plan, dealing with invasive species issues.

"There's a whole host of interactions that are required by state law, and a lot of confusion about where to turn for guidance or who's required to issue a permit," Olson added.

"There's also a lot of redundancy in terms of the jurisdiction for managing natural resources management," she said.

As an example, Olson said in her work to establish the Star Lake program to recognize lake associations with good lake management plans, she found that some were aided by county offices, others by the state Board of Water and Soil Resources and still others were contracting consultants.

"The point is that there wasn't a single resource where people knew that was where they should go and there was an awful lot of overlap in responsibilities among these different governmental organizations in different areas because of whoever happened to take an interest," Olson said.

Also, Olson said she attended a seminar last year in Duluth on invasive species with a host of organizations and agencies, "without necessarily a comprehensive direction of where we we're going to deal with this particular issue," the Bemidji Democrat said.

With state budget constraints, people have been asking for new ways to deliver government services in the 21st century, Olson testified.

"Because this is one area of government delivery of services that is brought to my attention most often by constituents in my area, this is the place where I happened to start with looking at how we can put in process a system for re-evaluating this," she said.

Agencies to be looked at include BWSR, Department of Natural Resources, Pollution Control Agency, Departments of Health, Agriculture and Commerce.

"We want to make sure that there is both the reality and the perception that there is a uniform delivery of how we're managing natural resources, and that we are making sure that the goals that we have within management are carried through and that everyone is treated the same way through the process," Olson testified.

Olson's bill called for an 18-member task force, with six public members appointed each by the House, Senate and the governor. The House contingent must contain a city representative, the Senate a county representative and the governor a representative from soil and water conservation districts and watershed districts.

All appointments "shall have experience or expertise in the science, policy or practice of the protection, conservation, preservation and enhancement of the state's environment and natural resources ..."

Sen. Dan Skogen, DFL-Hewitt, amended the bill to add eight farm representatives, raising the panel to 26 members. "A lot of the stakeholders in agriculture really felt that there was a chance they could be missed," he said. "This is gong to assure they are going to have a voice at that table, and it will give them some comfort."

There was lengthy discussion whether the eight should be part of the 18 or added to make 26, but 26 was settled on.

"You get a lot of people in one place, sometimes it makes it a lot harder to make decisions," said Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel. "Out of the 26 members, 13 are identified as to where they are going to come from. ... There is no representative from township government, and I imagine the environmental groups are going to think they should have some."

"This would be a very big undertaking," Olson said. "It's really important to have has many voices at the table as possible."

The bill allows the task force to create sub working groups, she added, where the large group can be broken up.

The committee also amended the bill to allow four members of the Legislature - both from the minority and majority - to be appointed but out of the public members of the original 18 provided members. And, the governor must appoint a tribal member as part of his public appointments.

The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee heard and approved the bill last session. "It was a discussion over the overall need to relook at the way we manage our natural resources and, at the very least, coordinate our natural resource management," said Chairman Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley.

Olson asked Chaudhary, who is also a member of the ag panel, to also testify on her bill.

The look includes permitting, water resources, wildlife game management issues and more, he said. "We felt we needed to step back and take a holistic look at it and see what we could do better."

The committee doesn't know nor does any one person know what that better system looks like, Chaudhary said. "But all the stakeholders, the people who are affected and who believe that we can do better is what we discovered should get together and put their heads together and come up with the ideas."