Minnesota will get its share of federal sporting goods tax dollars after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accepted changes to the way the state plans and records timber sales in state wildlife management areas.
In an Oct. 3 letter, federal officials told Sarah Strommen, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, that they will release $4 million from the past budget cycle and $17.6 million from the current budget cycle to the DNR . The money is intended for statewide wildlife habitat projects.
The federal agency had previously withheld the state’s share of the funds because agency officials feared the DNR was offering timber sales on wildlife management lands for which no documented wildlife purpose had been submitted before logging.
Federal grants for the acquisition, expansion and management of wildlife areas come from excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment and are required by law to be used to benefit wildlife habitat. Any management of these areas, including deforestation, must be done for the benefit of wildlife.
But now Charles Traxler, acting regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says the DNR has taken steps to better document how and why timber sales occur in wildlife areas.
“I am confident that future actions will be consistent with the grant and that there is a shared commitment to continue to work together to improve grant administration,” Traxler noted in the letter to the DNR.
The problem has been simmering for more than four years as conservationists, including several current and retired DNR wildlife biologists, argue that the DNR plans to log too much and in the wrong places in some wildlife areas to benefit the timber industry, often to the detriment of habitat for wildlife.
Under pressure from those critics, the Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in and issued orders to the state, including a lengthy consent letter signed by both sides in March chastising the DNR for dragging its feet on the issue.
The March agreement stated that “the desired future conditions (of the forest within the management areas) will be based on sound principles of wildlife biology and ecology” and that the management plans for the wildlife and water management areas comply with federal law requirements for the management of the Areas that are consistent will be used.
In late June, three DNR timber sales on state wildlife lands near Warroad were canceled just before they went up for auction. DNR officials later agreed to temporarily halt all timber sales, as requested by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Craig Sterle, a former DNR forester who helped challenge the agency about deforesting wildlife areas, said the agreement could mean the DNR is on the right track to managing areas for wildlife as intended.
“But we were kept in the dark about all the details that were agreed upon behind the scenes, so we really don’t know,” Sterle said. “I hope this will lead to real change on the ground. But I think there are still concerns that these are just changes on paper that may not make a real difference in the forest.”
The dispute, first reported in the News Tribune in August 2019, began when senior DNR officials began implementing a timber availability report that called for cutting more trees on state land to feed the state’s timber industry, including also more wood from wildlife management areas.
The effort began under then-Gov. Mark Dayton, and senior DNR officials have continued to push for more logging under Gov. Tim Walz. The initiative required an increase in the state’s share of wood for the industry from 800,000 cords per year to 870,000 cords and called for a portion of the increase to come from wildlife management areas.
In a 2019 letter to Strommen, 28 DNR wildlife managers called any increase in wildlife deforestation sought by the industry as scientifically dishonest. They said concerns raised by wildlife employees were being ignored by DNR forestry staff and senior DNR officials.
But Strommen said that while logging from wildlife areas will be part of the state’s overall timber sales to the logging industry, the agency does not have quotas for how much wood must come from wildlife areas. She continues to describe the critics’ complaints as unjustified and misguided because they misunderstood the analysis of wood availability from the start.
Minnesota has 1,440 public wildlife refuges totaling nearly 1.3 million acres, although only some of them are forested. The state has an additional 700 water management areas spanning about 700 miles of shoreline of lakes and rivers – much of it forested. Most of the state’s timber managed by the DNR comes from state forests and is not subject to wildlife management area regulations.