Republicans go 'slash and burn' on Minnesota's parks, environment funding

Budget cuts to the DNR could end camping in more than 30 Minnesota parks.

Budget cuts to the DNR could end camping in more than 30 Minnesota parks. Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

The people taking care of Minnesota’s parks, wildlife, air, and water aren't thrilled. The Minnesota Senate's Republican majority has unleashed a budget that reverses the state's historic devotion to the environment, slashing funding by 25 percent.

Some programs will feel the burn more than others. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) faces a 17 percent cut. The Board of Water and Soil Resources, which protects water quality in lakes, streams, and wetlands, could lose 39 percent. This at a time when farm chemicals have made water in whole swaths of southwest Minnesota too toxic for swimming and fishing.  

Minnesota Environmental Partnership Director Steve Morse testified before the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee last week. He spent a dozen years on that same committee as a Democratic senator from Dakota, and was commssioner of the DNR under Gov. Jesse Ventura. He believes agencies will have to rely on fines and fees to compensate for lost revenue, punishing the very people they're supposed to serve.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will get a major cut to its work cleaning up the St. Louis River and Duluth Harbor, both of which are still "highly contaminated" by nearly a century of dumping by wastewater plants, paper mills, lumber companies, and more. And that cut will be effectively doubled due to the loss of matching dollars from the feds.

The GOP's budget will also shift the burden for the agency's funding to the party's biggest ally, business, since it will need to levy more fees and fines to stay afloat. Under this scenario, a major polluter like Water Gremlin in White Bear Lake would suddenly become a good thing -- in a perverse sort of way.

It's accused of releasing high levels of a toxic chemical into the air for years. As Commissioner Laura Bishop put it, “I don’t want 10 more Water Gremlins to fund our agency.”

The DNR may have to reduce how long parks can remain open and staffed. Camping and other services would be eliminated in at least 30 parks, and campgrounds would remain closed during the "shoulder season" from Labor Day to Memorial Day.

There would also be fewer inspectors to look for invasive species, like zebra mussels. These tiny European bivalves have been hopping from lake to lake since 1992, filtering nutrients out of the water and reproducing "into the millions," as the Star Tribune put it. They're killing off native fish and infrastructure like water pipes.

The Minnesota Zoo may have to cut staff and reduce conservation projects, like protecting pollinators. Zoo staff aren't sure yet where they'll have to trim in order to fit into the new budget, but they guarantee visitors will feel the loss.

Chair Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria) didn’t respond to interview requests. Ironically, his district is among the state's most reliant on fishing, resorts, and outdoors vacationers.

The attack is a far cry from Gov. Tim Walz's plan to bolster the environment. His original proposal included $109 million for the DNR to care for buildings, waterways, parks, and roads, plus $25 million to the Minnesota Zoo.

Several of his proposals -- including investments in recycling, cleanup of contaminated drinking water in Burnsville and Savage, and money for chronic wasting disease in deer -- disappeared entirely from Republicans' budget.

It's an even further cry from the House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Rick Hansen (D-South St. Paul). 

“This is a slash-and-burn bill,” says Aaron Klemz of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. He thinks it’s probably going to come down to a negotiation between Walz and the majority leaders from each chamber, Rep. Melissa Hortman (D-Brooklyn Park) and Sen. Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa). 

What does that mean for the average Minnesotan? Ted Suss, a former Scott/Carver County state representative, says most of us won’t realize (at first) that these programs are disappearing. Few people know how much these agencies do besides keep them from catching too many fish or shooting baited deer. Until, that is, they stop doing it.

“I assume when I drive up to a state park, it’s going to be open,” he says. “I assume the bathroom will be clean, the electricity will be on, and the trail will be maintained.”

One day, they may not be. Only then will we know anything is amiss.