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Dennis Anderson: Meet the DNR boss, Tom Landwehr

Presiding over the state's outdoors requires listening to opinions, the new leader said. He also spoke of the strong presence of politics and the need to better target habitat projects.

Star Tribune
David Brewster
January 9, 2011

Questions and answers with Tom Landwehr, newly appointed Minnesota DNR commissioner. Presiding over the state's outdoors requires listening to opinions, the new leader said. He also spoke of the strong presence of politics and the need to better target habitat projects.

Q Did Gov. [Mark] Dayton give you marching orders as DNR commissioner?

A He said he hires people who know their jobs and shouldn't have to give them a lot of guidance. Also, he wants the DNR to treat its constituents as customers, and doesn't want us to be arrogant.

Q Define your leadership style.

A I like to listen. I think before a commissioner takes action, he needs to listen to a variety of opinions. I'm not a micromanager. I expect people working for me to do the right thing and do it well. We'll have good people being held accountable.

Q The prolonged time Gov. Dayton took to name you underscores the politics that often affect conservation. Is there a way to minimize its effect on fish and wildlife management?

A I'd love to say there is. But it's the curse and the virtue of a democracy. Everyone gets a say. These are state resources we manage, and they belong to us all. It used to be the Legislature set seasons, and the conservation community in the end said this isn't the best way to do it. So there have been improvements. But the Legislature sets funding of the DNR, and its direction is determined by the governor. I don't see that changing.

Q That seems fatalistic. Can't improvements be made?

A Even in states whose DNR is managed by a citizen commission, politics exist. I have been impressed with the notion of a conservation congress, like the one in Wisconsin, because it allows for constituent input. But it wasn't that long ago that Minnesota's resource management was considered top-tier nationally, and I know when I started with DNR they were very well regarded. So I don't think the model we have necessarily creates the problem. It could be the political environment we operate in.

Q Are we delivering conservation correctly in the state? Or should the DNR and other resource agencies be reformed?

A I don't have grandiose thoughts at this time. I think we can look at all of the divisions and the structure of the DNR and see if changes should be made. More philosophically, what should the DNR's responsibilities be and what should be decided elsewhere? That would be a great discussion, but it's up to the Legislature. We can look at processes in DNR and the structure to see if things under the commissioner's control should be aligned differently.

Q Did you develop your outdoor interests as a kid?

A My dad was a big outdoorsman who competed in a 400-mile canoe race for many years. As a result, I was in a canoe on the St. Croix many summers with him while he trained. I also fished and camped with my family, and hunted some.

Q Your primary interest is waterfowl and wetland wildlife management, but you worked in private-land habitat development to benefit pheasants for a number of years.

A When the pheasant stamp and fund were established in the early 1980s, I was one of four biologists who were assigned to work with private landowners. For four years I worked out of Shakopee. Then I moved to Madison, in western Minnesota, and to Owatonna.

Q Can ducks and other species rebound here, given the loss of natural habitat in the farmlands and elsewhere?

A Conservation can be accomplished by regulation or by incentive. In many cases, rural property owners believe it is their right to drain wetlands. The point I tried to make to landowners when I worked with them was that drainage projects often impact people downstream. And people don't have the right to affect people downstream.

Q Can our wetland wildlife situation be improved by regulation?

A We have good laws on the books already. But we've lost 99 percent of our wetlands in some areas, and society for better or worse has decided we don't want more regulation. So if we're not willing to regulate, we have to do it with incentives.

Q Money is tight and more incentives seem unlikely. What hope should duck hunters have that waterfowl populations will improve?

A The effective way to improve farmland wildlife is to target habitat projects better. We need to put habitat where it will do the most good. If we can use state money — primarily from the Legacy Amendment — to leverage federal money to do habitat work, we can bring a disproportionate amount of money to Minnesota and optimize its positive effect by, as I say, targeting it more effectively.

Q What is your position on mining in northeastern Minnesota, given the concerns some people have on its possible adverse effect on the boundary waters?

A I understand a lot of rural communities depend on use of natural resources for their livelihoods. And Gov. Dayton understands that job creation is very important. The charge for the commissioner is to find the most sustainable way to use natural resources, including precious metals. I think we can find a way to do that.

Q Is there too much overlap in authority over water among the DNR, the Board of Water and Soil Resources and the Pollution Control Agency?

A We need to break down the "silos'' separating the work we all do, so we're optimally efficient. I think also we need to look at core areas in the farmlands, identifying them using satellite imagery, and in those areas strive for habitat that is at least 40 percent grass and 20 percent water. We need to connect these areas with habitat corridors, where medium-sized mammals can move from area to area.

Q Do you see an upswing for logging and the forest products industry?

A Demand for forest products is weak due to the housing decline. But loggers up north need some help, and what I'm hearing from them is we should make more timber available. We shouldn't have procedural and bureaucratic obstacles that delay the sale of stumpage.

Q The lack of recruitment of young hunters and anglers threatens the wildlife management funding structure here and nationally. Are there remedies?

A A lot of people want information about how to get started in the outdoors but don't know where to get it. "Becoming an Outdoors Woman" and other DNR efforts are excellent. But to succeed, the efforts will have to accelerate, and we'll need partnerships with wildlife groups and perhaps schools to do it.

Q Management of some of the state's hundreds of wildlife areas seems beyond the DNR's capability, given manpower and cash shortages. Are there solutions?

A We need to get private businesses involved. Much of what needs to be done around wildlife areas is low-tech management. We need people to burn, to control weeds, to put up fences. If we could get private businesses in local communities doing that kind of work, we would be more effective and get more people invested in conservation.