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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Investigation needed

How did the DNR get away with its apparent misuse of federal wildlife funds?


A newly-released report from the federal Fish and Wildlife Service (see related story page B4) , or FWS, suggests that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources misused millions of federal grant dollars earmarked to improve wildlife habitat to pay for commercial timber harvests to placate the industry.
According to the draft report, which had been kept under wraps by the FWS since it was written in 2020, stemmed from site visits by two FWS biologists to three wildlife management areas in Minnesota to address concerns that had been raised by the public and DNR wildlife officials themselves.
The report found that two federal grant programs dedicated to the improvement of wildlife habitat, which are supposed to be managed by state wildlife officials, had essentially been hijacked by the DNR’s Forestry Division, which largely shut out wildlife officials from the forest management decisions and actions funded by those federal dollars.
And it isn’t just federal money at issue. The federal grants in question require matching funds from state agencies and in the case of the DNR, it appears some of those funds may have come from hunter and angler license fees paid to the DNR. Those funds are supposed to be spent on projects that enhance fish and wildlife, providing a direct benefit to those sportsmen and women who pay these fees. If those funds are, instead, being used to manage intensive commercial timber harvesting to placate the timber industry, the DNR is hardly living up to its obligations to hunters or anglers.
At a time when state and federal officials are justifiably investigating groups like Feeding Our Future for gross misappropriation of millions of dollars in federal COVID funds earmarked for feeding kids, those same investigative entities should be examining the DNR’s apparent misappropriation of millions of grant dollars earmarked for wildlife habitat to benefit the wood products industry. While there isn’t any evidence that DNR officials personally benefitted from the misappropriation of federal dollars, the misuse, if proven, could be a violation of federal law. An investigation could help to clarify exactly what funds were used or misused by the DNR. It could also reveal which individuals within the agency are responsible for this situation and provide for accountability, something that is desperately needed within Minnesota state government. State agencies shouldn’t be able to engage in these kinds of actions without those responsible for it facing the consequences.
As this newspaper opined last fall, state agencies in Minnesota are often far too cozy with industry. We’ve seen this time and again with the regulatory process surrounding the permitting of the NorthMet copper-nickel deposit. It appears that agencies like the DNR and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ignored or glossed over key issues in the permitting process, leaving the impression that state regulators are pushovers for big business. We also learned that the MPCA pressured the federal EPA to withhold written record of their concerns about one of those permits, pressure that ultimately kept the Trump-era EPA from submitting written comments on it. Did the same thing happen with the DNR and the FWS, which conveniently never completed their draft report highlighting the apparent misuse of federal funds? We have no evidence that it did, but given recent history, it’s a question worth asking.
The DNR’s adoption of the so-called Sustainable Timber Harvest Initiative, or STHI, which is the driver behind the apparent misuse of federal funds, was simply another example that should trouble Minnesotans who support multiple use of our state’s forests. The agency, under intense pressure from industry, implemented aggressive new logging goals that have elevated timber output above other considerations. While the Division of Forestry has long led forest management decision-making within the agency, wildlife officials at least had a voice in timber plans to provide a bit of balance between timber production and the needs of wildlife and a public that enjoys intact forests. That voice has largely disappeared, even within wildlife management areas, or WMAs, and DNR wildlife officials reported nearly universal dissatisfaction with their status and work within the agency in a recent internal survey. Some reported unmanageable levels of stress and feelings of hopelessness as they face constant criticism from supervisors if they don’t go along with the agency’s aggressive timber targets.
If the DNR is ignoring wildlife considerations even within WMAs, what is the situation on other state lands? We can only assume it’s far worse, which is why it’s critical that at least on WMAs, wildlife habitat isn’t sacrificed to placate industry. And the DNR should certainly not be using funds earmarked for the improvement of wildlife habitat to help pay for a timber program that seems focused only on a single value— commercial production. How we got here is a question that only an in-depth investigation can answer.