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Fighting the good fight on the land

Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny At left, Tom Landwehr and his daughter, Jocelyn, visit with Congressmen John Kline and Collin Peterson and Gov. Mark Dayton at the Watson Hunting Camp for the Governor's Pheasant Opener earlier this month. Tom Landwehr is the new commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

By Tom Cherveny

Fierce, partisan budget battles. A state shutdown. Asian carp. Zebra mussels. Out-of-control forest fires.

Since taking office last January, Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, has been handling his share of Crisis du Jour.

"Monday morning, it's just bam, fifth gear, right out of reverse,'' said Landwehr of the intensity that comes with the job.

Having the chance to visit with the commissioner during his participation in the Governor's Pheasant Opener on Oct. 15, it was good to learn he's been through these kinds of challenges before.

Right here.

Landwehr was serving as assistant director for the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota and the Dakotas when Gov. Mark Dayton appointed him as commissioner. He also brings 17 years of experience with the DNR and a solid, science-based background in resource management to the job.

He cut his teeth as DNR wildlife manager in western Minnesota, taking on that role in Madison in 1987, 1988 and part of 1989. His tenure in Madison turned the avid waterfowl hunter into someone just as passionate about chasing pheasants. He returns every fall to hunt pheasants in Lac qui Parle County.

Madison is where he also learned something about crisis management. He arrived as a drought took hold on the western prairies. An explosion in grasshopper populations on state wildlife lands had the agricultural community in fear. Landwehr led an effort to seed the grass lands with a biological agent that infected the grasshoppers and stomped out the potential prairie fire of crop-eating hoppers.

Today, he sees one of his most important roles as again serving as steward of those lands.

In his years at Madison, Landwehr said it could be discouraging. He'd work hard all year long and would be lucky if he could add 160 acres of new habitat. A postage stamp sized area in respect to his 500-square mile work area.

Now he has a new perspective on the work that he, and his predecessors and successors accomplished. "When you look a the cumulative result, 50 years of conservation work in Lac qui Parle County, Chippewa County, it's pretty significant,'' he said.

Pheasant numbers are tied directly to grasslands. Minnesota's future pheasant hunting depends on the success of providing the needed habitat, said Landwehr. Legacy Funding makes possible an opportunity to continue to march forward, said Landwehr.

"The point I always make to staff: Every time we spend one of those dollars it really ought to be going towards creating a legacy,'' he said. "Twenty-five years from now we ought to be able to look back and say every dollar we spent was a legacy dollar, and meritorious of that voter confidence.''

A big picture look at pheasant hunting's future in Minnesota also shows that its overall success will depend greatly on federal farm policy. The deepest pockets belong to the federal government. Farm conservation programs are critical to keeping habitat. "If we lose CRP, we're back to what it was in 1984,'' Landwehr said of pheasant hunting in the state.

Hunter and angler retention and introducing young people to the outdoors are also priorities for the commissioner.

The challenges are obvious, he said. Young people have so much competing for their attention today, everything from electronic gadgets to sports and a daily regimen of scheduled, after-school activities.

They also have less access to the outdoors. The day when a kid could pick up a BB gun after school and walk out to the local slough to shoot are long gone for most in our urban world today.

Lanwehr said his goal as commissioner is to offer more opportunities for youth to get involved in the outdoors, and their parents as well.

He was surprised to see the results of research conducted by the state park system into the barriers that keep people from camping. Number one was a fear of wild animals. "What, in Minnesota?'' he said. "You know? Raccoons, that's it.''

Number two was a lack of camping equipment and knowledge on how to use it. And third, was a professed inability to start a fire and perform all of the other, elementary aspects of camping.

That's why Landwehr said he will continue to promote the "I Can Camp'' and "I Can Fish'' programs offered by the DNR, as well as geo-caching and other activities focused on introducing gadget-loving young people to the outdoors.

He knows the challenges ahead. Like all state agencies, the DNR took a hard budget hit in the last session. And, its proposal to revamp the hunting and fishing license structure and increase revenues never left the runway.

Landwehr is hoping to bring back an improved version of the license changes, one designed to make it easier for casual outdoors people to buy a license. The need to buy various stamps has proven a hurdle for some. One idea is to blend the costs of the stamps in the base license fee, while also offering more options, such as 90-day licenses.

The DNR is better poised in some ways to handle the state budget challenges than even 10 years ago, when nearly 50 percent of its budget was derived from the general fund. Today, the general fund provides 17 percent of its overall funding, he said.

However, reliance on the general fund falls greatest on state parks, trails, and ecological and water resources. These are also some of the areas where the best opportunities are found to introduce people to the outdoors, he noted.