COMMENTARY | Unveiling Challenges in Minnesota’s Forest Management

Chandra Rosenthal

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In Their Own Words

Beefalo hybrid of cattle and bison

PEER mailed the survey to 325 Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employees on September 21, 2023.  Over the next month PEER received 39 survey results. We were informed by a DNR employees that managers in at least two DNR divisions told their employees not to respond to the survey. Although the survey response rate was only 12 percent, the survey results reveal concerns that DNR management of forest and habitats leans heavily toward favoring the timber industry and sheds light on the persistent issues plaguing the management of state-managed forests in Minnesota. 

The “DNR FAW Staff Survey: Forest Habitat Management on FAW Administered Lands” was conducted during a similar period as the PEER survey.  Responses submitted prior to September 7, 2023 were considered. The results were presented at the September 8, 20223 Forest Forum. 56 employees responded. 

PEER Survey »
DNR presentation »

Unveiling Challenges in Minnesota’s Forest Management 

The dense and stunning forests of Minnesota stand among the country’s most captivating. Beyond being cherished by Minnesotans for hiking, camping, and recreation, these woodlands serve as vital habitats for a remarkable array of species, some exclusive to the region. Embraced as a prized state asset, these woods earn recognition from both the public and the dedicated Department of Natural Resources (DNR) stewards responsible for their care.

Employees are concerned that the current forest management plan, the Sustainable Timber Harvest Initiative (STHI), established in 2018, is unduly prioritizing timber production over essential conservation efforts. This one-sided focus has already led to the loss of heritage woods, and if not rectified promptly it will lead to irreversible damage to our forest ecosystem, including the potential extirpation or even extinction of special status species. The bias towards the timber industry and the lack of ability for the managers to do anything about it has led to employee dissatisfaction and a public response.

The Fish and Wildlife Service who oversees some of these lands are also concerned and have to date withheld federal funding –Pittman Robertson grants –to the DNR forest program for nearly two cycles due to these concerns. However, timber cutting persists on federal interest lands, leading to diminished habitat for special status species, including wolves, Canada lynx, northern long-eared bats, and Rusty Patched Bumble Bees.

This matter has been brought to PEER’s attention by employees both at the Fish and Wildlife Service and the DNR. The level of engagement from former employees in voicing their concerns is particularly striking.

In September of 2023, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) conducted a survey of employees in the Divisions of Fisheries & Wildlife, Forestry, and Ecological and Water Resources of DNR. The purpose of this survey was to gauge staff opinion regarding the effectiveness of the Sustainable Timber Harvest Initiative five years after its inception, and identify issues of importance to expert staff.  Former DNR staff developed the survey.

PEER’s survey is in line with a separate survey conducted by DNR the same month. Both surveys reveal a consensus: the undue influence of the timber industry in management of public forests and employee dissatisfaction with how Minnesota handles the state’s forest habitats.

Perceived Bias in Resource Management

The surveys revealed a prevailing perception that the DNR’s management of forest and related habitats leans heavily towards favoring timber industry. With more than two-thirds of respondents in the PEER survey expressing concern that management of forest and related habitat resources are biased in favor of timber management. In the DNR’s own survey, a staggering 89% of the responding employees are dissatisfied with the DNR’s management of forest habitat. This skewed prioritization raises serious questions about striking a balance between economic gains and ecological conservation.

Flexibility in The Timber Quota System

More than two-thirds of the responding professionals in the PEER survey advocate for a revision of the timber cord quota system, emphasizing the necessity for increased flexibility among field managers. In the DNR survey, 45% of the employees that responded said that the staff need clarity on the ability of staff to authorize or decline, defer timber sales. Almost half said that the experts—the forestry wildlife managers—need the ability to decline a sale to the timber industry. This is a collective call to management to fix a broken system.

Leadership Communication and Trust

The surveys unveiled a concern about the lack of leadership support, fear of retaliation and lack of trust. More than half of PEER survey respondents are hesitant to perform certain job aspects due to apprehensions about lacking support from divisional leadership regarding professional judgment in resource management. Two employees responding to the DNR survey state it plainly,

“I myself hit a point where I just decided to give up advocating for certain forest values as it seemed fruitless.”

“Wildlife staff have been marginalized and not empowered to advocate for the benefit of a diverse wildlife and habitat system…We feel punished for our professional perspective, rather than engaged to find solutions.”

A startling revelation emerged from the surveys, with over two-thirds of respondents expressing dissatisfaction with the clarity of directions provided by DNR leadership. Equally concerning is the lack of trust in the leadership’s commitment to support sound natural resource management against political pressures from special interests. One employee concern highlighted in the DNR survey stated,

“We don’t feel any support from the top, we don’t feel heard and we don’t feel appreciated…it is obvious they have no respect for us or our concerns.”

Employees are calling for a reset and balance in the mission and management of state lands. Although our survey represents a small sample size, it is critical to listen to the voices of those working at DNR. These shared experiences and input will help make DNR a more effective and responsive organization. We hope to see the following changes at DNR:

    1. It is time for DNR to review timber management policies. A comprehensive review of timber management policies, notably the cord quota system, is necessary to explore alternatives that offer greater flexibility to field managers while ensuring sustainability. The prioritization of timber production over habitat conservation within the current timber harvest implementation has resulted in the loss of heritage woods. It is imperative to prevent irreversible damage to forest habitat ecosystems, potentially leading to the extinction of special status species.
    2. Minnesota experts call for balance between economic and ecological goals. Reassessing resource management strategies becomes imperative to strike a better balance between economic objectives, such as timber management, and ecological conservation goals.
    3. Employees at DNR need to be supported rather than marginalized and vilified. Improving communication and transparency in decision-making processes is vital. Ensuring that divisional leadership supports staff expertise and professional judgment, particularly in resource management, is crucial for a more collaborative and effective working environment.

The findings from both the internal state employee survey and the external PEER survey underline the urgent need to rectify the skewed focus on timber management, strengthen habitat conservation efforts, and rebuild trust and transparency within the DNR’s leadership. Collaboration between stakeholders, including employees, is essential to chart a sustainable path forward for Minnesota’s invaluable natural resources.

Chandra Rosenthal / Staff PhotoChandra Rosenthal is the Director of PEER’s Rocky Mountain Office located in Denver, Colorado.

Phone: 202-265-7337

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