Feds Put Minnesota DNR Logging on a Short Leash
Prior Certification: No Wildlife/Aquatic Habitat Harm in Timber Projects
Washington, DC —As a condition of receiving federal funding, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) logging operations must meet stringent new conditions to ensure the protection of wildlife and natural habitat, according to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) document posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Federal funding for any DNR timber project now requires project-by-project pre-approval following site inspection and document review by both FWS and DNR wildlife staff.
Until this fall, FWS had been withholding an estimated $22 million in federal aid from DNR due to environmental violations by the state logging program. Those violations were summarized in a newly surfaced FWS assessment detailing how DNR’s misuse of federal wildlife funds for timber operations degraded wildlife habitat. Further, DNR improperly diverted hunting and fishing license revenue to commercial timber harvests rather than fish and wildlife work. In addition, $1.4 million timber sales revenue was not reported as required by federal regulation.
While the bulk of these withheld federal funds have since been released, FWS-administered grants related to DNR timber projects are now on a reimbursement-only basis, and then only after approval of an environmental assessment, full project documentation, and a site inspection by state and local wildlife officials. These new restrictions also apply to state-administered logging on lands not purchased by federal funds and “even if the proposed timber harvest management activity is not included in the [federal] grant costs.”
“We commend the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for holding Minnesota to account for its out-of-control timber program that was damaging the wildlife habitat it was supposed to enhance,” stated Rocky Mountain PEER Director Chandra Rosenthal, noting that this is the toughest sanction FWS has imposed on any state resources agency in decades. “By its long pattern of environmental violations, DNR has forfeited any benefit of the doubt it once enjoyed.”
Recent employee surveys conducted by both PEER and DNR itself found that agency wildlife staff felt marginalized, and their concerns were ignored by DNR’s forestry program. The new FWS requirements appear designed to empower DNR wildlife staff and to ensure that their suggestions will be incorporated into timber project planning.
“It is clear that timber quotas have skewed the balance to industry at the expense of habitat conservation efforts,” added Rosenthal, noting that today, PEER wrote to new FWS Midwest Regional Director Will Meeks to ask that the public and media be included in the preview of DNR documentation and site inspections. “Transparency will be key to restoring public trust in DNR leadership.”
Sounding a hopeful note, former FWS Mid-West Regional Chief of the Division of Wildlife and Sport Fish Preservation and Minnesota resident, Robert Bryant commented, “Going forward under Will Meeks, I believe that there will be a fresh review of the FWS administration of these grants to Minnesota DNR.”