Conservation Efforts in Minnesota Are About to Change - And What That Means for the Lake You Love

The MN DNR reports that hunting and fishing license sales, which have traditionally funded conservation work continue to decline. What does the future of conservation look like in Minnesota?

Conservation Efforts in Minnesota Are About to Change - And What That Means for the Lake You Love

By Jeff Forester

At the 2019 DNR Roundtable, an invite only gathering of DNR “stakeholders,” speakers sounded a warning call; the numbers of young people who are taking up hunting and fishing sports is declining in Minnesota. The baby boomers are aging out of the sports and there is no new cohort coming up to take their place. This decline is happening even with the unprecedented investment of hundreds of millions of Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment dollars to support hunting and fishing over the last ten years.

Much has been said in recent years about the declining sales of hunting and fishing licenses in Minnesota and across the country. We should care, the argument goes, because hunters and anglers are engaged in the wild places, they understand them and care about them. The money they raise through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses pays for about 80 percent of conservation efforts. For forty years the hunters and fishermen have been a core constituency for natural resource and fish and wildlife agencies and departments across the nation. Stakeholder groups have been well populated with hunters and anglers.

But that dynamic is changing. This change creates a vacuum and a responsibility, and lake associations seem uniquely positioned to fill that vacuum and take up this responsibility.

By July 4th, 2018, fishing license sales in Minnesota were lagging about 41,000 behind previous years, a drop of 4.8%. Yes, last year was almost the latest ice out in Minnesota history, but the decline fits with a long term trend. And Minnesota is faring better than most states. The larger, nationwide trends are even more concerning.

US News and World Report wrote, “Jenifer Wical, marketing coordinator for the department's Fish & Wildlife Division, said the report fits into long-term trend of lower participation that's concerning. She said it shows that as elder anglers have been leaving the activity, but younger people haven't been taking their places.”

This trend has been long recognized and sportsmen and women have been taking action to reverse it.

Beginning in the 1980s, funding for conservation of wild places became a priority for hunters and anglers and many conservation groups. They successfully pushed for federal excise taxes on all hunting and angling gear. The revenues from this tax are apportioned among the states to improve hunting and fishing opportunities and increase access. These sportsmen’s groups also worked to create a mechanism for private landowners to protect land in perpetuity, the conservation easement on the land. In the early 2000s, hunting was officially protected in the Minnesota Constitution. In 2005 Sportsmen’s groups successfully encouraged the legislature to designate all land covered by a conservation easement for which State funding was used to be open to public hunting.

The federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear returns about $35 million to Minnesota. Hunting and fishing license sales raise about $180 million, supplying about 35% of the MN DNR Annual budget. Any reduction in license sales is a big hit for the MN DNR.

In 2008, the conservation community, led by hunting and angling groups successfully pressed for passage of the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment, a 3/8ths cent sales tax passed by Minnesota voters in 2008. The Outdoor Heritage Fund, created by the Legacy Amendment,  receives one-third of the money raised by this tax increase. Appropriations for this $100 million plus annual revenue stream are reviewed by the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council with the goal to the, “ restoration, protection, and enhancement of wetlands, prairies, forests, and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife, and that prevent forest fragmentation, encourage forest consolidation, and expand restored native prairie.”

This funding has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on conservation easements and outright purchase of hunting lands and projets to increase populations of turkeys, grouse, pheasant, waterfowl and deer. The number of huntable acres and populations of these game species has risen significantly since the Legacy Amendment was passed.

The shooting and angling sports enthusiasts have successfully worked to establish shooting and angling as competitive high school sports. Skeet and trap shooting teams in Minnesota have exploded to over 26,000 participants in the last few years.

Still hunting license sales, particularly among young people, has decreased.

At the same time other outdoor activities have been increasing.

Star Tribune outdoor reporter Dennis Anderson wrote, after attending the 2019 MN DNR Roundtable, “To the degree the DNR Roundtable is representative of Minnesota’s conservation movers and shakers — and it is — it should undergo a seismic shift to include, among other outdoors enthusiasts, more silent-sport and non-consumptive users.

Some of these people are hikers, climbers or paddlers, and still others back-country adventurers, cross-country skiers, runners, bird watchers or bikers. In short — forgive the generalization — they’re more the REI crowd than the Cabela’s crowd.”

A closer look at the demographic studies of hunters and anglers does suggest a solution. Promotion of silent and non-consumptive sports and a means to obtain funding from these activities, like extending the federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing gear to bird seed, kayaks, paddles, life vests, binoculars, backpacks, cross country skis, snowshoes - in short the purchases of everyone headed to the outdoors.

But a deeper and more significant strategy is to work to build an outdoor ethic, understanding and appreciation for our wild places in the next generation. Lake associations are uniquely positioned to lead in this solution. In fact, some already are.

Almost all of Minnesota’s cities and towns are adjacent to a lake or river, which means that most of Minnesota’s schools are within walking distance of a water body. The University of Minnesota straddles the Mississippi River. While many educational efforts to date have focused on day or weekend programs at nature centers or parks, there is no reason why Minnesota’s schools could not build the best water sciences programs into our state curriculum starting in grade school. Minnesota’s schools could have our school children out doing actually science in our many state and county forests and parks, gathering data on lakes and participating in studies. Learning about the natural world starting young and continuing through college for those that go that far.

People care more about things they know. In the years to come, freshwater resources are only going to increase in value, importance and complexity.

And lake associations, sitting on lakes with a deep bench of people with professional experience are perfectly positioned to advocate for, participate in and help facilitate a strong water sciences program in their local school. One universal challenge lake associations face is an aging membership and bringing in more children will bring in their parents. Parents with school age children are far more likely to volunteer and engage in programs for their children.

A few lake association organizations have already taken up this effort:

  • The Otter Tail County Coalition of Lake Associations has put together and funded a two day Aquatic Invasive Species curriculum that has already reached thousands.

  • Christmas Lake Association used high school volunteers, working with a professor from Middlebury University, to pilot a bio-control for milfoil.

  • The Lake Johanna Association, Ramsey County and Northwestern University are partnering to pilot the same bio-control program on Lake Johanna next summer.

  • A group of people in Cass County, including a Cass County Commissioner, the MN DNR, Association of Cass County Lakes and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe will be running a similar pilot on Town Line Lake in Cass County.

  • Some lake associations have started sailing schools, angling camps, water ski clubs.  These are all great first steps to not only connect lake associations more fully into the communities they serve, but to increase support for conservation in Minnesota in years to come.

This year Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn has introduced a bill called the No Child Left Inside bill, HF 133, which, if passed, would, “... establish a no child left inside grant program to be administered by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The program would provide grants to public entities and nonprofit organizations for natural-resource-based education and recreation programs for youth.”

Minnesota is the land of ten thousand lakes. We should focus on water science inquiry starting in grade school and continue that focus through secondary education. With strong partnerships between state agencies, local school districts, and energetic local non-profits, Minnesota could produce the best water scientists in the world while creating a generation that has a deep understanding of and respect for our natural world.

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