ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources this week announced a “transformational effort” to find new, long-term sources of cash to pay for the agency’s conservation and outdoor recreation efforts, saying current funding isn’t keeping up with Minnesotans' basic outdoor needs or expectations.

The effort comes as the agency and Minnesota outdoor enthusiasts watch traditional means of funding natural resources slowly dry up, as revenue from hunting and fishing license sales declines with an aging baby boomer population, and as inflation eats away at the fees campers pay at state parks and boaters pay for their licenses.

PREVIOUSLY: As the baby boomers age-out of hunting, will younger hunters replace them? The numbers are grim

“Minnesota’s current natural resource funding system can’t sustainably support continued conservation, natural resource management and outdoor recreation opportunities,’’ the agency stated in announcing the effort.

The DNR push will run through 2022 and starts now with a public outreach campaign to ask Minnesotans what they want in the outdoors and natural resources in the future and then will ask them to brainstorm ways to pay for it. It may end with some sort of legislative action or even a constitutional amendment placed in front of voters.

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The goal “is to ensure the DNR can serve new, returning, and long-time outdoor enthusiasts, and sustainably manage the state’s natural resources for generations to come.”

“We’ve seen over the past year or more now how critically valuable Minnesota’s outdoor recreation and natural resources are to the people of this state,” Sarah Strommen, DNR commissioner, told the News Tribune, referring to the get-outdoors rush to camp, boat, fish and participate in other outdoor activities during the pandemic summers of 2020 and 2021. “We’re enjoying the benefits of Minnesota’s past investments in the outdoors. But we aren’t making those same investments now for the future.”

Minnesota DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen 
Contributed / Minnesota DNR
Minnesota DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen Contributed / Minnesota DNR

It’s not that the DNR’s budget isn’t getting bigger. It is, jumping from $603 million for 2004-05 to $1.3 billion for the fiscal years 2022-23 that just started July 1. But nearly all of that increase is coming from dedicated trust funds that are constitutionally bound for specific areas and prohibited from funding core DNR operations. The new money is great news overall for conservation, but it’s troubling for the agency which often must manage the new projects without any extra budget or staff increase.

The DNR's state general fund share for its operating budget — a pot of money that everyone pays into through sales and income taxes — moved little for a decade, from $89 million in 2005 to $85 million by 2020 and finally got a bump to $103 million for fiscal year 2022.

“Almost all of our funding increases (in recent years) have been for restricted purposes,” said Mary Robison, the DNR’s chief financial officer. “Those funds are intended to pay for new things, not for core DNR operations. And it’s those core operations where we have the problem.”

Strommen said the rush to get outdoors also has underscored how fragile the system is. User fees for activities like state park camping and fishing and boating licenses haven’t kept up with inflation and the DNR is repeatedly called on to do more with less — a smaller staff on the ground and a smaller chunk of the state’s general fund in their budget.

In traditional outdoor areas the demographic is aging rapidly. As people age out of the activities, fewer people are buying licenses, with less money going into fisheries biology and wildlife management for all species. In 2000 there were 35,994 deer hunters age 65 or older in the Minnesota woods. By 2018 senior citizen hunters had nearly doubled to 69,728. The average age of a Minnesota deer hunter in 2000 was 38.78. By 2018 it had jumped to 41.77. In 2012 Minnesota sold 521,951 deer hunting licenses. By 2019 that dropped to 462,095, down nearly 12% in just seven years. (Even amid the pandemic rush to get outside, 2020 deer license sales were flat with 2019.)

“The question is, are we happy continually trying to just keep even with what we had two years ago? Or do Minnesotans want more?” Strommen said. “We’re struggling to tread water.”

Strommen said the agency needs to keep user fees on pace with inflation, reflecting the true value of experiences like state park camping. But she said the state also must make sure those outdoor experiences remain open and available to everyone no matter their financial status. It doesn't make sense, she said, for the state to have an expansive state park system if many residents can’t afford to pay for state park stickers or camping fees.

After Minnesotans share their vision of the state’s outdoors future, the agency will seek ideas for fair and sustainable sources of funding. The DNR’s budget can’t count on “pay-to-play” activities like hunting that peaked years ago. The state needs to account for activities that Minnesotans are now engaging in but which haven’t been tied to outdoor funding. People are using the outdoors differently, and in ways that often didn't help foot the bill — like electric-car owners don't pay gas taxes but still drive on the roads gas taxes pay for.

If everyone benefits from the state’s vibrant outdoors and natural resources — hikers who see eagles, bikers who use trails, birders who seek out wildlife management areas to birdwatch — there's a growing sense maybe everyone should help pay. That could mean some sort of conservation passports, licenses or stamps. Or it might mean that more of the DNR’s budget comes from the state’s general fund that everyone pays into. And maybe it means entirely new funding sources that no one has identified yet.

Strommen said she’s confident Minnesotans will come through with their best ideas for the future of the state’s outdoors and with some breakthrough ideas on how to pay for them. After all, she noted, Minnesotans have demonstrated support for the environment and outdoors through the constitutionally dedicated Environmental Trust Fund — the state’s share of the lottery profits — and with broad public support for the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. That’s the one where Minnesotans vetoed to raise their own sales tax with the extra money going to clean water, conservation, outdoor recreation and natural resources.

“We don’t want to build a model that funds the past,” Strommen said. “We want to build a model for Minnesota’s outdoors into the future.”

To get involved

The Minnesota DNR wants your help to establish a new approach to funding conservation and outdoor recreation. First, the agency wants to hear about “your experiences in the natural places you love, your expectations for the future management of Minnesota’s resources, and your ideas for supporting conservation and outdoor recreation opportunities for generations to come.”

The DNR has declared that all Minnesotans have a right to and deserve:

  • A wide variety of outdoor recreation and nature experiences.

  • Equitable access to public lands and resources.

  • Healthy, diverse, and thriving natural resources.

  • Benefits from functional ecosystems — including clean water and air — regardless of their direct use.

The DNR this week unveiled its new website to engage the public at engage.dnr.state.mn.us/reinvesting-in-minnesotas-outdoors