Dennis Anderson
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Dennis Anderson

Amid what likely will prove to be another so-so Minnesota duck season (at best), and on the cusp of what probably will be another so-so Minnesota pheasant season, start today with this premise:

Notwithstanding certain wildlife, conservation and environment gains that have occurred in recent decades — turkey, deer and goose populations have risen, the Mississippi River is cleaner, among other examples — just about everything to do with the state’s farmland wildlife has, in the aggregate, gotten worse.

And few knowledgeable observers expect matters to improve — again, notwithstanding the formidable efforts put forth by key conservation players, including Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, and others.

Now another premise:

The only way to ensure a brighter future for ducks and pheasants in this state, and a more diverse farmland landscape, is to change dramatically the way the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) operates in the southern two-thirds of the state — a change the DNR likely would fight tooth and nail, regardless of its potential improvements to farmland conservation.

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A digression:

The last major Minnesota Poll that gauged residents’ interest in conserving land, water and wildlife was taken in 2001. In it, respondents were asked whether, if they had to choose, they would favor protecting the state’s environment over lower taxes, relieving traffic congestion and economic growth.

The questions were, and are, important because priorities inevitably must be established among competing public needs.

Results?

Fully 75 percent of respondents said they would rather protect the state’s environment than have lower taxes, 60 percent rated conservation higher than economic growth, and 52 percent favored environmental protection over relieving traffic congestion.

Only public education topped natural resource conservation, 70 percent to 20 percent, with 10 percent undecided.

The same poll asked Minnesotans to rate their state’s quality of life, and 33 percent called it “excellent,” with 19 percent citing outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing as reasons for their positive viewpoints.

So enamored of the outdoors are state residents that fully 77 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “Minnesotans are more connected to nature and the outdoor life than people in others parts of the country.’’

The poll’s findings were validated in 2008, when, amid a severe recession, Minnesotans voted by about a 60-40 margin to cough up approximately $300 million annually in additional taxes to protect the state’s natural resources, build more parks and trails, preserve the state’s cultural heritage and underwrite the arts.

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So if Minnesotans love their land, water and wildlife so much, why do they tolerate depressed populations of ducks, pheasants, songbirds and bees?

Each in its declination is an indicator of a host of environmental ailments, including dirty water, the overuse of pesticides and the mowing of public roadsides for private gain.

Losses of this kind began at statehood and accelerated as farm machinery became larger and more powerful in the second half of the last century. Often with government funds, ditches were dug and wetlands drained. In 1954, for example, the Fish and Wildlife Service counted 1,668 wetland acres in Cerro Gordo Township, in Lac qui Parle County. But by 1972, only 400 acres remained. One ditch alone in that county and adjoining Yellow Medicine County depleted 350 wetlands totaling 4,730 acres between 1967 and 1969.

The losses continue apace today.

How this can happen, given Minnesotans’ strong interest in protecting resources, is a conundrum that can be explained in part by the loss of Minnesota business, political and thought leaders among hunter and angler ranks. James Ford Bell, for instance, the founder of General Mills, was as much a hunter and conservationist as he was a businessman. So, too, in the not-too-distant past, Walter Bush, Vern Aanenson, Bob Naegele and Win Mitchell.

Today you’d be hard-pressed to find a relative handful of Twin Cities business and political leaders who give more than lip service to conservation.

The same, with a twist, is true of rank-and-file Minnesotans, many of whom, interested as they are in the well-being of fish and wildlife must, in their busy lives, reduce conservation to an afterthought, replacing volunteer hands-on habitat or other work with check writing to a favorite wildlife group, and hoping for the best.

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Here are two indisputable truths: Agriculture in Minnesota will continue to intensify. And the state’s human population will continue to increase.

To counteract these, acknowledgement must be made that what the state is doing now to conserve the state’s farmlands isn’t working. Or isn’t working fast enough to offset the continuing losses.

Instead, Minnesotans themselves, who have a strong, proven interest in fish, wildlife and conservation, must become part of any solution.

To achieve this, as I’ve written before, the DNR should organize itself into sub-regions of indeterminate size in the southern-two thirds of the state, in which the agency’s primary responsibility would be to organize their efforts, along with those of sportsmen’s clubs, wildlife groups, environmental organizations and other government agencies, toward common conservation goals.

The point would be to jointly prioritize planned conservation projects in a given sub-region, leveraging, in the process, the efforts of schoolkids, church groups, local chambers of commerce — the very Minnesotans who today are left out of the state’s conservation matrix.

None of this would be difficult to accomplish, and perhaps could be set in motion if Gov. Mark Dayton — who already has hosted successful pheasant and water summits — called to order one more such meeting before leaving office: a Conservation Summit.

January 2018 would be a good time for such a gathering, at which the state’s conservation kingpins could mull Minnesota’s past, present and future, and devise a better way forward.

Or, hey, we can keep doing what we’ve been doing.

And hope for the best.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com