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Dayton wants big bucks for natural resources

Fishing boats fill the water near Williams Narrows at dawn on Cut Foot Sioux Lake north of Deer River, Minn., during the Minnesota fishing opener. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)

ST. PAUL — Gov. Mark Dayton's administration on Wednesday outlined its natural resource budget proposal for the next two years, saying it raises spending and license fees to help boost both environmental health and outdoor recreation.

The plan includes increased fees for fishing, hunting and boating licenses, among others, in an effort to keep services and operations at the current level, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials said Wednesday.

Dayton now has charged the DNR with selling the idea to campers, boaters, hunters, anglers, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts that it's worth raising their annual fees to maintain services like trial grooming, invasive species prevention, boat landings, etc.

DFLer Dayton and the DNR also will have to convince a Republican-controlled Legislature over the next few months.

"Minnesota has great fishing, access to millions of acres of public hunting lands and a growing deer herd... Minnesotans enjoy 75 state park and recreational areas; 23,800 miles of snowmobile, cross-country skiing and all-terrain vehicle trails; and nearly 2,000 public water access sites and fishing piers across the state. Minnesotans also count on abundant clean lakes, rivers and groundwater and healthy forests for a good quality of life and to support tourism and industry,'' the Department of Natural Resources said in a statement today. "However, these quality of life amenities are threatened in the near future with inadequate funding. The DNR funds many of these activities through licenses and user fees — many of which are facing deficits in the next few years."

Only about 15 percent of the DNR's budget comes from the state's general fund. Most DNR funding comes from user fees — licenses, passes, permits, etc. — and dedicated funds from the outdoor state sales tax and lottery proceeds.

"We think the governor's budget proposal does a good job of balancing the needs to maintain and improve the system with the desire to keep outdoor recreation affordable. The quality of life in Minnesota is phenomenal because of these opportunities," said Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner. "And we need to ensure that we work hard to keep it that way."

Landwehr said it's not just an issue for fish and wildlife and the people who recreate outdoors but also the state's rural economy, which benefits from spending by outdoor enthusiasts.

The DNR appears to have the support of several user groups and businesses involved in the state's outdoors. Jenny Smith — owner of Cycle, Path and Paddle in Crosby — said her shop has grown nearly every year since opening in 2005 thanks to the state's thriving trail system in the region, especially bicycle trails and especially mountain bike and fat bike trails.

The Cuyuna Lakes area trail system "has absolutely transformed our area,'' Smith said. "The economic benefits to our towns is incredible."

John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited, said a citizen's group keeping watch on the DNR's spending fully backs the license fee increase and that DNR cutbacks "would have a detrimental impact on the resource.''

The state has quality habitat and good fishing and hunting, but those can't be maintained "if we don't continue our investment in the resources,'' he said. "The licenses in this state are a bargain."

George Radke, president of the All Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota, said the fee increase is critical to continue his group's vision of an interconnected statewide ATV trail system. "This is truly an investment in our future,'' he said.

Fishing, hunting and wardens

The Game and Fish Fund is expected to slip into a deficit starting in 2019, DNR officials said, which would impact multiple areas, from fish stocking to wildlife management areas.

Dayton has accepted the DNR request to raise the basic annual fishing license from $22 to $25, with the non-resident license going from $45 to $51.

"That's about a scoop of minnows,'' Landwehr noted in a press conference.

The resident deer hunting license would jump from $30 to $34. The last increase to fishing and hunting license came in 2012, when resident annual fishing licenses increased $5 and resident deer hunting licenses increased $4.

The governor's budget proposal also includes $5.5 million from the General Fund to assist in filling 21 empty conservation officer stations across the state. Each conservation officer's patrol area now averages 650 square miles, leaving about 13,650 square miles in the state that don't have adequate natural resource protection.

"That is an area larger than the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined,'' the DNR noted.

State parks

For Minnesota's state parks, which see upwards of 10 million visitors each year, the governor has proposed raising the daily park permit from $5 to $6 and the annual fee from $25 to $30. Dayton also proposed spending $9.3 million in new General Fund money to be used to support parks and trails operations in order to meet the needs and expectations of a wide variety of outdoor recreationists.

State park fees haven't gone up since 2003.

"While the DNR is meeting its goal of getting more Minnesotans outdoors, the state's parks and trails have been stretched to a critical point where basic maintenance and staff services are no longer meeting visitor expectations,'' the DNR noted, citing Blue Mounds State Park, which no longer has safe drinking water for campers, as an example.

Dayton's bonding/construction bill has millions of dollars included for state park projects and updates.

Boats, ATVs, skis and snowmobiles

The state's three-year registration fees for snowmobiles would jump from $75 to $105 and ATVs from $45 to $60; three-year boat registration fees would increase in a range from $2 to $60, depending on the length of the watercraft. For example, fees for a 17-19-foot watercraft would increase by $18. The state's daily ski pass would rise from $5 to $7.

The governor's budget also proposes to adjust the annual watercraft surcharge fee from $5 to $12 to fight aquatic invasive species and support research for long-term control methods. The surcharge was last increased from $2 to $5 in 1993.

Forestry, clean water

The governor's proposed budget includes $2.5 million from the General Fund to reforest state lands. This investment will help support the state's important forest-products industry and includes $500,000 to complete a study of sustainable timber harvest on state lands.

The governor's proposal includes $18.5 million from the Clean Water Fund for the DNR's work to fix and prevent water pollution and prevent overuse of groundwater. With this funding, the DNR monitors and manages water use and provides local government and other state agencies with the information, analytical tools and expertise needed to focus their water quality efforts most effectively.

Bigger overall budget

The entire Dayton budget plan would spend almost $46 billion in the two years beginning July 1, a nearly 10 percent increase over the 2015-2016 biennium.

The budget proposal now must be syphoned through the Republican-controlled state Legislature, which is unlikely to approve all of what DFLer Dayton wants. In the end, both sides will have to compromise to get a 2017-2018 budget passed.

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