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DNR commissioner envisions new course for conservation

It was a message of a Renaissance, of future change, but the audience wasn't necessarily ready to hear it framed in so many words.

It was a tough message of a need for local involvement and enforcement to preserve Minnesota's natural resources as the state's financial resources dwindle, and it was delivered by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Holsten to the annual meeting of the St. Croix River Association at its annual meeting May 7 at the Lowell Inn in Stillwater.

Holsten introduced himself as a local boy, having grown up on a farm in then Grant Township. "Brown's Creek, which drops into the St. Croix River, was in my backyard."

But beyond the family ties to the area, in which he still lives, Holsten said he also gained his legacy of conservation and preservation in the St. Croix Valley. It is the 40th anniversary of the St. Croix River being designated the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

"As I look out over the room, I see the people who fought that fight," Holsten said. "I grew up in the shadow of those wise leaders," who protected what is wild, unique and beautiful.

But the future will not repeat the past, Holsten said, and those interested in conservation are going to be challenged to provide a different approach to conservation, this time as a task of local governments and the people.

"The era of big government protection is over," he said. "The Renaissance is not going to happen by government alone. It can't happen by government alone."

In the future, especially with changing demographics, state government resources will be eaten up by medical care, education, transportation and prison expenses, he said. "[Conservation]'s going to need to happen at the local level of government," Holsten said, in partnership with local activists, those committed to conservation.

In the past, local government had less control, and conservation protection of state government was necessary, but that is no longer the case.

During the question-and-answer period, several members of the audience challenged Holsten, asking how the state government could reduce its efforts toward conservation in an era when it is evident that resources are being degraded while the population is growing.

It is not a specific choice the government would make, Holsten answered, but simply a reflection of reality. Three-quarters of the funding for the Department of Natural Resources comes from user fees, with a quarter of it coming from the state's general fund.

With fewer people taking part in programs, there will simply be less money for programs. Holsten added that he didn't have all the answers as to what conservation efforts will look like in the future.

A shift in how conservation is accomplished can inspire a sense of despair in people, Holsten said, "or you can take it the way I am. I have an opportunity, I have a responsibility."