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New DNR leader brings natural resources experience

On Thursday, Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Tom Landwehr commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, replacing former commissioner Mark Holsten.

Tom Landwehr
Tom Landwehr, an avid sportsman, has been appointed commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources by Gov. Mark Dayton. (Submitted photo)

On Thursday, Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Tom Landwehr commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, replacing former commissioner Mark Holsten.

Landwehr, 55, worked for the DNR from 1982 through 1999, serving as wetlands wildlife program leader during his last nine years with the agency. After leaving the agency, he served as conservation director for Ducks Unlimited and most recently was assistant state director for The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The News Tribune caught up with Landwehr shortly after Thursday's announcement and asked him a few questions.

Q: During his campaign, Gov. Dayton vowed to appoint someone with a background as a natural resources professional to lead the DNR. You, of course, fit that description. Do you think it's important that someone trained in science lead the agency?

A: I think for this department in particular, having a passion for and knowledge of natural resources is critical. When you're making decisions about natural resource issues, having a basic understanding of the science is critical. Secondarily,

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having an understanding of the state's resources and having an understanding of what the threats and opportunities are helps us see the future we might want to create.

Q: Do you see any immediate aspects of the agency that need to be changed or fixed?

A: The good thing about the DNR is that the staff are really, really committed professional people. Most of them got into this field because they have a personal passion for it. There are good people doing these jobs.

I think there are things the governor has committed to that I endorse, such as making sure the permitting processes are as efficient as possible. They (permits) may ultimately be approved or denied, but they shouldn't be dragged out because of bureaucracy.

The other thing is, I've got to put together a good team and get ready for the legislative session. Fundamentally, over the next six months, we'll be wrestling (as a state) with a $6 billion gap and how we are going to deal with that. Most of our (DNR) money comes from user fees -- hunting and fishing licenses -- but 27 percent of our budget is from the general fund. The entities that receive those funds are going to be critical for customer service -- forestry, permitting. A lot of the activities we want to make sure stay whole are facing these budget challenges.

Q: Beyond those issues, what other areas will you be looking at?

A: Once we get our feet on the ground, then there are some huge natural resource issues we need to get our arms around. One of them is conservation in the prairie pothole region. We've always enjoyed a reputation as a state with good waterfowl hunting, and we all know what's happened with that.

The department has done nice things with forest conservation in the past few years, and we want to keep that rolling. I think we have some opportunities for forest easements, which keep forestry jobs and keep the forests intact.

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"Keeping Minnesota No. 1" is the shorthand I use. This is a wonderful place to live and a great place to visit. People from all over the country come here for our grouse hunting and fishing.

Q: Was it a difficult decision for you to accept the leadership of the DNR?

A: The hardest part is just from the family standpoint. This position is obviously a huge obligation. I very much enjoy my time outdoors, but my family is first. We wrestled with this for a long time. The end place I've landed is that if something has to give, it'll be my recreation. It won't be my family. The irony is that the job may reduce the time I spend outdoors doing the things that I got in the job for in the first place.

Q: Mining development, particularly copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota, is currently a subject of debate. Philosophically, where will you stand as commissioner on that issue?

A: Philosophically, what I'd point out is that, as a citizen of the United States, I live an extraordinarily high quality of life. That includes flat-screen TVs and computers and smart phones. All of those include elements we can find around the world. Some of those, we're finding on the range of Minnesota. We can either choose to acknowledge that we use those resources and find ways to do it sustainably, or ship those extractions to Third World countries where they have no environmental restrictions.

If we're willing to use those things, we need to find ways we can do that sustainably and without off-site impacts. I think we can find ways to do mining extraction without off-site impacts. If we can do that sustainably, then there's no reason the commissioner shouldn't support that. If you can't do it sustainably, then we have to find a new way of doing business, or the commissioner simply can't approve it.

One point I'd make is that the commissioner doesn't make the laws. The commissioner is just there to implement the laws.

Q: What do you think your most important personal attribute will be in serving as DNR commissioner?

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A: I think it's going to be my listening. If there's one thing I point out, it's that I listen. I sit in a meeting for an hour, and people wonder if I'm asleep. But I don't learn anything by talking. I think the best ideas are in other people's minds. Listening to divergent points of view helps me come to better decisions.

Second is collaboration. If there are two polarizing opinions, you want to find agreement where you can and do what's best for the natural resources.

Q: Is there someone -- or more than one person -- in your career whom you would consider a mentor or whose values helped shape your own in the field of conservation?

A: I'm a big believer in Aldo Leopold (the University of Wisconsin biology professor considered the founder of wildlife management). Leopold was the foundation of my undergraduate training. And I had the great opportunity to work with Roger Holmes in the (DNR's) Division of Fish and Wildlife, and I started at the DNR with (Commissioner) Joe Alexander. I've been working quite a few years with Mark Johnson (of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association) and Joe Duggan (of Pheasants Forever) and learn from them. One of the different relationships was with Bob Lessard. I so appreciated his leadership on the Legacy Amendment. (Duluth conservationist) Dave Zentner is another one. He's a true statesman and conservationist.

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