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Tom Landwehr's appointment to head the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) represents a return to the place where he cut his teeth in wildlife management in the 1980s and '90s.

Landwehr embraces DNR balancing act

Peter Bartz-Gallagher

Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher

Environmental, industry interests will be watching new commissioner closely

Tom Landwehr’s appointment to head the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) represents a return to the place where he cut his teeth in wildlife management in the 1980s and ’90s.

Since 1999 he has worked for non-profit conservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy. Now Landwehr returns as Gov. Mark Dayton’s choice to run the agency, whose portfolio ranges from busting poachers to reviewing the environmental impact of heavy industry. Landwehr comes to the job with strong support from hunters and anglers. And during his short time on the job, the graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management has won plaudits for reaching out to industry, including northern Minnesota mining interests.

In a political environment where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have made job growth their top political priority, Landwehr’s job puts him in a politically sensitive position; his agency is where industry and environmental regulations meet – and sometimes collide.

“The commissioner’s job is not to stop economic development. Nor is it to roll over on environmental laws,” Landwehr said. “It’s to find a balance between those two.”

The DNR’s staff ranges between 2,700 and 3,100 employees depending on the season. For the 2010-11 biennium, the DNR had a $886 million budget from all funds, including the state’s general fund, Game & Fish Fund, Natural Resources Fund, federal funding and other sources.

Stopping aquatic invasive species and addressing water quality problems rank among Landwehr’s chief concerns. “Right now we have some big surface water quality problems,” he said. “We know how to deal with those. But we are not. I would argue it’s because we don’t have the legislation in place to do that.”

But DNR commissioners rarely have the luxury of setting their own agendas on environmental issues; the environmental issues that confront them tend to be dictated by circumstance. One of the highest profile issues for DNR right now involves reviewing and permitting mines in northern Minnesota. Iron mining projects, which have been a DNR mainstay for generations, continue to be proposed. And the DNR is undertaking a laborious review of the emerging industry around copper and nickel mining.

Craig Pagel, an Iron Mining Association lobbyist who has known Landwehr for years, was encouraged when the new commissioner quickly sought an audience with mining executives after his appointment.

“He definitely gave us the indication that he’s interested in keeping the lines of communication open,” Pagel said.

The proposed PolyMet mine near Babbitt is a cause for alarm among environmental groups because nonferrous mining in other states has polluted waters with sulfuric acid – a history that Landwehr acknowledged.

“All of the history around nonferrous outside of Minnesota has people scared, and rightfully so,” he said. He added, however, that there’s reason to believe Minnesota is different, particularly because the concentration of sulfates in Minnesota is lower than that found in other mining regions.

“We’ve got a different beast here,” Landwehr said, “and there are different technologies available. We can’t just look at everything that’s been done in the past and say, ‘Oh, my God, that happened there, that’s going to happen here.’ We have to recognize that this is a unique situation that has to be analyzed uniquely, and we have to come to our own conclusions.”

The DNR has been working on the environmental review process for PolyMet since 2005, and the time involved easily dwarfs any other recent mining proposals. Between 2006 and 2010, the PolyMet project has consumed 37,000 hours of time from multiple state agencies, including the DNR, according to a report released this week by the Minnesota legislative auditor. (The second environmental review statement, which involves additional parties, should be finished by this summer.)

Landwehr said he takes seriously the DNR’s job of determining the proper financial assurances that PolyMet should make to cover the cost of any future environmental cleanup.

“If we can’t be certain we can’t avoid that problem, then how can we be certain that somebody besides the taxpayers is going to be on the hook for remediation?” Landwehr said. “We have to have financial assurance that is rock-solid and bulletproof.”

Shortly after Landwehr took office, he named a DNR veteran and long-time friend, Dave Schad, as deputy commissioner. He then reorganized the upper echelons of the DNR with several appointees.

Lawmakers bristled at some of Landwehr’s lieutenants, who have sparred with legislators in the past over Legacy funding recommendations made by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, sharply criticized Landwehr’s choice to hire former Sen. Bob Lessard and Pioneer Press outdoors columnist Chris Niskanen.

“Now they have offices in the DNR and we, the taxpayers, are paying for their offices. I used the phrase ‘the coup is complete,'” Hausman said.

No sooner than Hausman spoke out, Landwehr and DNR legislative adviser Bob Meier visited her to talk things out.

“To his credit, he was in here immediately and said that whatever agendas they had in the past in the community, they will not have in the department. And he will write their job descriptions,” Hausman said.

Going forward, Landwehr and his staff have their hands full in carrying out Dayton’s 2012-13 budget proposal for the environment and natural resources. On one side, the nonprofit group Conservation Minnesota has expressed concerns that the budget cuts to natural resources-related parts of state government are disproportionate to other parts of the budget. The group’s leader, Paul Austin, said he is concerned that the proposed budget may be an unconstitutional attempt to “backfill” general fund spending with Legacy money.

Republicans in the Legislature, meanwhile, object to a variety of proposed fee increases, according to House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Denny McNamara, R-Hastings. “I think we’ll develop a budget that doesn’t use fee increases as a way to raise that money,” said McNamara, who gives Landwehr good marks thus far.

Landwehr, who is married with two children, obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in wildlife management from the University of Minnesota. Landwehr also received an MBA from the university’s Carlson School of Management in 2001 and served two terms on the Shoreview City Council. Since leaving the DNR in 1999, Landwehr has worked for Ducks Unlimited in Iowa and Minnesota and most recently was assistant state director at the Nature Conservancy.

Landwehr had it tough growing up in St. Paul’s McDonough housing projects. His father died when he was 11, and his mother worked full-time while raising six children. His first real DNR field job was doing habitat management with southwestern metro-area landowners. He then went out west to Madison to work as a wildlife manager.

Landwehr came back St. Paul to become the first wetland wildlife program director. It was a time when Ron Nargang worked for the DNR and the influential Willard Munger was the chairman of the House environment committee.

It goes without saying that Landwehr likes to hunt and fish. Landwehr also is unique in that he harvests wild rice every year in a canoe with friends in the Mille Lacs area.

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