As anglers and hunters drop out, DNR seeks more sustainable funding

Published 7:00 pm Tuesday, December 14, 2021

By Dan Kraker, Minnesota Public Radio News

Last month, Bob Walker walked into a stretch of woods southeast of Rochester, Minn., with his son, hoping this year would be his final deer hunt. He’s 80 years old, and he was ready to retire from hunting — but not until he shot one last deer.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to stick with it until I get one and go out on a positive note,’” Walker said.

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Walker’s healthy — he walks several miles each day. But he says it’s getting harder for him to walk in the woods. He tripped and fell when he set up his hunting blind this year.

The past two years he didn’t see any deer he wanted to shoot. But this fall, one walked past his blind. He shot, and the deer fell.

“We kind of hooted and hollered a little bit and hugged each other,” Walker recalled. “And that was a really good day for me.”

Walker has hunted for more than 60 years, first with his dad and uncle, then his brother, then his son.

He shot his first deer when he was just 14 — in the same patch of woods along the Root River where he killed his final deer.

Now that he’s ready to put away his hunting rifle, Walker says he’d like to pass on his equipment to his four grandsons and teach them to hunt.

“But the two older ones, they have no interest in hunting anything at all,” he said, adding that the two younger boys could still change their minds.

What’s happening within the Walker family exemplifies an issue the Department of Natural Resources faces across Minnesota. As more and more anglers and hunters stop fishing and hunting, there are fewer people replacing them.

And that’s a big issue — because for decades the state has relied on license and registration fees and taxes on equipment to fund a significant portion of its natural resource conservation and management.

So the DNR is asking for some help. It wants people around the state to weigh in on how best to fund outdoor recreation and conservation.

“The time is really right. We haven’t seen … foundational investments in Minnesota’s conservation and outdoor recreation systems in a generation or more,” said DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen.

Much of the state’s outdoors infrastructure — from state park facilities to fish hatcheries — was built in the 1950s and ‘60s, Strommen said. Some of it dates back to the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.

“So it’s really time, I think, for us to think about how we revitalize that system, how we can invest in that system,” says Strommen, “so that it serves not only the users today, but users in the future.”

Strommen said that work is especially important now because people have turned to the outdoors in unprecedented numbers during the pandemic — for outdoor recreation, and mental health.

One option, says Craig Engwall, executive director with the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, is to generate revenue from some of the newer ways people are engaging in the outdoors, like mountain-biking, climbing or bird-watching.

“There’s an excise tax on your fishing rod. There’s an excise tax on a shotgun, on all those things that hunters and anglers do as part of their passion,” said Engwall. “It’s funding the management of the resource. And there are a lot of activities that are growing, and are great, that don’t have that same element of a tax on them.”

Texas voters elected to do something similar. They approved a measure two years ago that allocates proceeds from the state sales tax on sporting goods to fund state parks and wildlife.

The challenge is to make sure that raising fees doesn’t discourage people from utilizing the outdoors.

“If you charge too much, or you charge in the wrong place, you may create a financial barrier to some folks,” said Strommen.

Another option that would require legislative approval is to increase the amount of funding the DNR receives from the state’s general fund.

While the agency’s overall budget has increased substantially in recent years, that’s largely been driven by funds that don’t cover the DNR’s core budget.

The DNR’s current general fund budget allocation of about $104 million is actually significantly less than what the agency received in 2020, when general fund appropriations peaked at nearly $126 million.

Meanwhile, the agency is facing several critical natural resource issues — from invasive species to climate change to chronic wasting disease.

Dave Zentner, former national president of the conservation group the Izaak Walton League, said he supports more funding for the DNR.

But Zentner said the process to determine that new funding model also needs to address critical questions.

“What are the outcomes going to be for the citizens and the resources of Minnesota? What are we going to get for investing more in the agency?” he asked.

Zentner is part of a small group advising the DNR on its effort. Lynnea Atlas Engebretson, who recently served on the state’s outdoor recreation task force, is also advising the agency. She says a new funding model needs to serve all Minnesotans.

“The population in our state, of growing communities, is coming from Black, Indigenous, other communities of color,” she said.

“So if we think that we’re going to have a system that will be successful, we have to make sure that what we’re doing is inclusive of these populations and their needs,” said Engebretson.

To that end, the DNR wants the public’s help in identifying a vision for outdoor recreation and conservation in Minnesota. And then in the second half of 2022, the agency says it will propose a way to fund that vision going forward.