New Minn. DNR commissioner outlines challenges, priorities and opportunities as she begins new job
Sarah Strommen is the new commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, replacing Tom Landwehr, who had been at the DNR helm since 2011.
A St. Paul native, Strommen, 46, was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz to oversee a DNR staff of about 2,700 full-time employees with a budget of $1.1 billion for the 2018-19 biennium.
Strommen most recently was assistant DNR commissioner. Before joining the DNR in 2015, she was assistant director of the Board of Water and Soil and Resources. She previously worked as policy director for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and associate director of the Minnesota Land Trust, according to bio information on the DNR website.
Strommen also was an elected official, serving several terms on the Ramsey (Minn.) City Council and was elected mayor in 2012. She stepped down in May 2018.
Hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities are a way of life for her and her family, says Strommen, who lives in Plymouth, Minn., with her husband, Jon, 12-year-old son and two dogs.
“For us, outdoor time is family time, and family time is outdoor time,” she said. “We spend a lot of time on the water, we spend a lot of time hiking, we are avid canoeists and kayakers, and we have two dogs we like to run and we hunt together and snowmobile together.
“There isn’t probably a lot of outdoor activities we don’t engage in together.”
Less than three days into her new job, Strommen talked with Forum News Service outdoors writer Brad Dokken about the position and her goals and priorities as DNR commissioner.
Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q. You’re obviously just starting, but what was your first order of business as DNR commissioner?
A. The first thing I did after my appointment was to get on the phone, quite frankly. I spent the better part of two days on the phone calling stakeholders, introducing myself. I talked to tribal governments, local governments, conservation organizations, industry groups -- a whole variety of folks -- to introduce myself and let them know how much I look forward to working with them.
I think that’s been a really great way to get started. It really has been fun to talk with all those people, it’s really energizing and inspiring and a good reminder of all the fantastic partners that the DNR has in this work.
Q. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the DNR as you begin your new position?
A. We obviously continue to have habitat loss; we continue to lose important forest, grassland, wetland habitats. Water quality continues to be a challenge, waters that are not fishable, swimmable, drinkable. Invasive species, both terrestrial and aquatic, continue to spread. We’ve got CWD threatening our deer herd, so there’s all of these issues, and I think the habitat issue is of some urgency here.
I think we have some windows of opportunity, but I think beyond all of these individual issues, I have a longer-term concern about people’s connection to the outdoors. As our population changes, as we become more urbanized, as the demands on people’s time changes, I think it’s really of concern that people maintain that connection to the outdoors, and I think for us in particular, it’s a concern clearly because of funding but also just in terms of having a state and a population of people who care about the outdoors over the long term.
Q. What does Gov. Tim Walz’s vision of “One Minnesota” mean in terms of the DNR, given the widely varied constituents the agency serves?
A. I really feel that the DNR is extremely well positioned to engage in that “One Minnesota” agenda because we have such a diversity of stakeholders and such a diversity in our mission.
We cover outdoor recreation, we cover conservation of natural resources and we cover commercial use of natural resources. And so we really have the ability internally with our staff and with our stakeholders to bring all of those perspectives that Minnesotans have about the outdoors and our resources together to have robust conversations and figure out the best outcomes.
I think we have tremendous opportunity here. And I think we’ve had really good examples working in that way.
One I know you’re familiar with is the Lake of the Woods lake management plan, a recent piece of work, and the changes in the regulations, which was an opportunity to bring together anglers, resort owners and others who were interested in that resource to come together around a plan for the lake and come together around some changed regulations.
They’re more restrictive, so that could have been an issue for some people, but I think through that conversation, people understood the issues and were able to come to a solution together with relatively little controversy around that. And that’s the kind of thing that I hold up as a model to how we can do our work.
Q. What can people in northwest Minnesota expect from Sarah Strommen as commissioner?
A. I certainly hope to spend some time up there, and I plan to spend some time up there. We’ve got to kick off the legislative session, and I’ve got some duties to do for that, but I really do want to hit the road and get to all parts of Minnesota, but the northwest in particular.
I think we have some really good work going on there, and we have some issues going on there.
The Lake of the Woods work is one piece that I’m really proud of and I think has been good work. The fishing opportunities and fisheries in the Red River and the work to reconnect that watershed is really, I think, fantastic work and is something that I want to learn more about and see firsthand.
The sturgeon recovery is just something that I find so inspiring. I’ve been up to the Rainy River sturgeon fishing and just had a ball and want to do more of that.
And then there’s the elk issue, too, that has been kind of a perennial one the last few years in northwest Minnesota and I think also presents a real opportunity for DNR to work with landowners and farmers to address their concerns, but also respond to the public’s interest in having a healthy and thriving elk herd in the state.
Q. I read a column after your appointment saying the DNR has been managed in a way that doesn’t allow it to succeed in its conservation mission in the face of progress and development and that you’re being set up for limited success because of that. How would you respond to that?
A. I think the first piece is in defining what you want to be successful at. Clearly, there are many issues that have different time horizons associated with them, as well. Some things can be solved in a four-year time period; some are going to take longer.
So, I think the first piece is being clear about which of those issues are we going to tackle and then where do we want to be in four years. Is it something we can complete in four years or is it something where our goal is simply to move the ball further along in the right direction?
That’s really on my task plate, as well, as I talk with our leadership team here, as I talk with our folks in the region and as we talk with our partners collectively coming to those conclusions.
The other thing I will say is that I’m a very strong believer that success in this arena takes partnerships. It takes not only the DNR but it takes our federal partners, it takes our nongovernment partners as well as our local partners.
The DNR, of course, is a major player, but to be successful, we need to work in partnership with all those other entities and so that’s how I intend to approach this, as well.