License Fee Increase Seeking Support; Cuts Would Be Felt By Many

Tribune file photo The state maintains roughly 1,500 water access sites. Maintenance and upkeep would be reduced if the fee increases sought by the DNR are not approved. Boaters prepare for an outing on Green Lake in this photo.

State park users would feel the immediate impact.

Campgrounds at 34 state parks could close on July 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year, if the state Legislature rejects bills seeking fee increases for operations by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, according to Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner.

Hunters, anglers, and those who enjoy boating, off highway vehicle, snowmobile or bicycle riding on trails would experience the effects as time goes on, said the commissioner during a stop in Willmar this week.  

The state would have to stop stocking about 200 of the approximately 1,500 lakes now stocked, he said. Anglers might not notice it immediately, but in a couple of years those lakes would no longer hold the fish they seek.

Tribune file photo / DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, is traveling the state to seek support for a DNR proposal to increase fees to maintain the current level of services. He is shown at last fall’s Pheasant Opener hosted by Montevideo.

Maintenance would be reduced at Wildlife Management Areas, meaning red cedar and other unwanted vegetation could crowd out the habitat supporting pheasants and other game species. Current vacancies in the fish and wildlife division would remain unfilled and as employees retire, those positions too would remain unfilled, he explained.

Fish creel and wildlife survey work would also be reduced, which would adversely affect how decisions are made to manage fishing and hunting.  

Staff cuts to the Trails and Parks division would make it impossible to keep up with upkeep and dock maintenance at all of the state’s 1,500 water access sites.

There are currently 20 vacant Conservation Officer positions, and they would remain unfilled if the fee increases are not approved, according to Landwehr. Each of the state’s conservation officers are responsible for patrolling an area of roughly 600 square miles. The vacant positions represent an area equivalent to the size of Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined.

When other officers retire, those new vacancies would also remain unfilled. Officers would get spread “thinner and thinner,’’ said Landwehr.

Cost increases sought for snowmobile and OHV registrations are needed to support the grant-in-aid and trail maintenance work. The funds wouldn’t be there to support the local groups and DNR personnel involved with maintaining all of the state’s 2,200 miles of snowmobile trails, the commissioner pointed out.

The state is seeking to raise a variety of fees to maintain the current level of operations, said Landwehr. The cost of a fishing license would rise from $22 to $25. A deer hunting license would increase from $30 to $35. A daily state park pass would increase by $1 to $6 and an annual permit from $25 to $30.

 The commissioner said the DNR cannot allow its budget to go into the red, so it would have to start taking action immediately if the legislature does not approved the increases. The fish and wildlife funds, which are funded largely by license fees and revenues from a federal excise tax on recreational goods, is projected to go into the red in 2019.

State parks have already been reducing staff and services due to fiscal constraints. Landwehr said the stress the cutbacks have inflicted on park staff is evident in the loss of some employees.  

Currently, bills that would fund DNR operations are advancing in the House and Senate, but they do not include the funding the DNR has identified as needed to maintain the current level of service.

It’s not just those who enjoy Minnesota’s outdoors who have a stake in all of this, according to Landwehr.

Hunting in the state is calculated to be a $700 million economic driver in the economy, said Landwehr.

The economic impact of fishing is in the neighborhood of $2.4 billion, he said.

The DNR proposal seeks a $9.3 million increase in general fund monies for parks and trails, but otherwise relies on fee increases to meet the needs, said Landwehr. Fees support 85 percent of the DNR’s budget.

Landwehr said Governor Mark Dayton told him he supported the proposed increases “as long as you get the constituents behind it.’’

One week ago, 48 sports groups in the state, Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited among them, sent a letter to legislators supporting the proposal.

Now it’s up to individual residents to make known their support, according to Landwehr. “For us the most important thing is that the residents contact their own legislators because now is when the real rubber hits the road.’’

Legislators are likely to decide the fate of the budget proposal right once conference committees begin working on the differences between the House and Senate, which could happen right after the Easter break, he said.

Tribune file State park users would be the first to feel the impact if the DNR’s requested fee increases are not approved. Campsites at 34 state parks could be closed July 1. Horse riders enjoy a trail at Glacial Lakes State Park in this photo.