Decline and Fall at the DNR

Jane Sherman

On October 5, the aptly named Gordy Forester retired from his position as an assistant regional wildlife supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Forester, who earned a degree in wildlife management from the University of Minnesota, had worked at the agency for three decades. For most of that time, Forester says, he found it rewarding. But over the last few years, he became increasingly irritated by what he perceived as the overt politicization of the agency. After the election of Tim Pawlenty as governor, Forester complains, the DNR workplace culture seemed to shift dramatically.

Management decisions once based on science increasingly became matters of public relations. Appeasing the politically powerful hook-and-bullet crowd and ATV riders often supplanted responsible decision making. Eventually, Forester says, a "Kafka-esque" edict came down requiring that all communication with media be approved in advance from central offices in St. Paul. So, after some agonizing, Forester decided to take retirement two years early. Before cleaning out his office, he fired off an e-mail to some 300 colleagues, which outlines--in damning detail--his myriad complaints about the agency he served so long.


To: Fish, Wildlife and Ecological Services Staff

I wanted to say farewell to all of my fellow Fisheries, Wildlife and Eco personnel who have been my friends and co-workers for 30 plus years. It's been a long time, but time catches up with all of us in the end.

When my contemporaries and I started in the early to mid-'70s we had a passion, not just for hunting and fishing but for all of the environment. We knew/know all too well the interconnectedness of the Land, Air, Water and the creatures that depend on them. We've tried our best over the years to manage these resources for the benefit of all the people of the state. But narrowly focused interest groups now wish to dictate all that we do. Whether it's good science is less important than if it is good politics. I made an effort a year ago to let our Director know that the professionalism and integrity of staff were being undermined by the politicization of DNR. I was cut off and instructed to write a letter of apology, doesn't everyone know that wildlifers just can't compromise or work well with other groups? I don't believe the situation has demonstratively improved since my little outburst last year.

The thing that has been most disconcerting to me is that there is nothing on paper detailing the kind of actions that St. Paul clearly expects. When a regional or area team comes up with a proposed action or position that everyone locally agrees on across discipline lines, it certainly seems that if the Commissioners office doesn't agree then it is tabled or sent back until the answer wanted is eventually recommended. At other times field staff, in contravention of their best judgment, make a recommendation because they are told to do so, e.g. Turkey releases in Northwestern Minnesota or increasing stocking rates of Walleye. I suspect there are others.

We have been told to "don't worry about taking notes [at meetings], we only have to document action items." To me it seems obvious that the politicians in Central Office don't want the public to know very much of what goes on or to have their fingerprints on the decisions that are made but rather point the finger at field staff and say as did the Director that it was field staff that came up with the proposal for increasing the stocking rates for Walleye.

We all know that by its very nature DNR decisions are political but in previous administrations politics was mostly a St. Paul office exercise and field staff and biologists were free to make their opinions known at least in house. No more, it has been made abundantly clear to me that I am an executive branch employee and work for the Governor not the resource, not the sportsmen, not the people of the state. It seems pretty Kafkaesque to report to St. Paul every time you have a media contact, or get approval for the simplest news release. If you keep abreast of what is happening in other states and at the Federal level you will see that these kind of tactics are pervasive and to me very chilling. What this tells me is that my professional judgments are not trusted. I hope you all can keep making the point that we should be doing the right thing not the politically expedient. I leave you with the hope that you can all rise in the morning and live with the face that stares back at you from the bathroom mirror for the recommendation that you make.

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