New DNR commissioner has conservation background
If you hunt or fish, camp at state parks, cross-country ski, hike or snowmobile on trails — or if you have an opinion on copper mining or wild rice in northern Minnesota — you might want to pay attention to Sarah Strommen over at least the next four years.
Strommen is the new commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources in a state that pays a lot of attention to natural resources.
Gov. Tim Walz chose Strommen, 46, to lead 2,700 employees with a two-year budget of $1.1 billion at the DNR.
But she's not just the CEO of the state outdoors business. She's an active consumer of her own products, one of a half-million hunters and a million anglers. Strommen likes to fish and kayak, including at her family's cabin on Leech Lake. She's hunted deer and grouse and is an avid snowmobiler, skier and trailwalker. Her family — which includes her husband, 12-year-old son and two dogs — has canoed in the BWCAW and visited many state parks.
"We do all these things, and we do them together,'' Strommen said of her family's outdoor recreation lifestyle, hinting that fishing may be her favorite. "Our family time is outdoors."
Strommen said the primary duties of her new job are to balance the agency's three core and sometimes conflicting missions — managing and promoting outdoor recreation; natural resource preservation; and overseeing and encouraging commercial uses of natural resources like mining and logging.
But Strommen also sees a big part of her new job as keeping people connected to the outdoors they love while getting more people connected to the outdoors for the first time. That means providing and encouraging more outdoor recreation opportunities. Many of the activities that require DNR user fees — especially hunting and fishing — are seeing fewer participants, which means less money for natural resources management but also less public support for conserving and enhancing natural resources.
In the Northland, Strommen cited continued progress in restoring Lake Superior's native lake trout population and the ongoing, slowly advancing cleanup and restoration of the St. Louis River estuary as key successes, and key continued focuses, for her agency.
Strommen has been both praised for her four years' experience in the DNR — assistant commissioner overseeing parks, trails, fish and wildlife — and criticized by some for not rising through the ranks of the agency; for not having experience in field biology.
Strommen said she knew early on in her graduate work (which focused on tropical ecology) that she wanted to be more than a biologist in the lab or field. She wanted to be part of the process that uses biology to make natural resource management decisions.
Her career, she said, has been based on that desire to help join science, public policy and public buy-in to better natural resources.
Strommen once served as policy director for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, a point that should set well with conservation and environmental groups across the state but less so with Iron Range mining supporters as the ongoing battle continues over possible copper mining near the federal wilderness that the DNR will be asked to issue permits for.
Walz (as did former Gov. Mark Dayton) appears to have drawn a line between allowing the PolyMet copper mine near Hoyt Lakes to advance but opposing the Twin Metals copper project near Ely that's just 40 miles away from PolyMet but within the Boundary Waters watershed.
Strommen declined to offer any opinion on Twin Metals, noting no formal project has been proposed and no specific permit or issue is in front of the DNR. She promised, however, to conduct vigorous environmental review of any major project and to allow meaningful "robust" public input.
She also promised that any permits issued or denied by her agency would be decisions based on "good science and data."
Dave Zentner, a Duluth-based conservation leader, said he's worked with Strommen for years on many natural resource issues and that she was an excellent selection.
"I've seen her in a lot of different settings and what I've seen is she's smart as a whip. She's an authentic listener. She's a fast study at digging out what the root issue is ... and then developing a response to the problem once she figured that out,'' Zentner said. "We just had a commissioner in Tom (Landwehr) who really loved the outdoors in Minnesota and loved serving Minnesota, and we have that again in Sarah. Her heart and soul are in this place. This woman loves Minnesota, she loves the outdoors. But she also knows we have a lot of really pressing problems."
Zentner said Strommen has instant credibility in the conservation community from her days heading the Friends group and her work at the Minnesota Land Trust, jobs that saw her advocating for both public lands and private land conservation.
Zentner said the state's approval of the PolyMet copper mine project — in addition to the state's backing-off of existing wild rice protections and the continued operations of the Minntac taconite plant without a permit that meets state water quality standards — had soured some environmental and conservation groups on the Dayton administration.
But Strommen's appointment may signal a shift. As Walz said on appointing Strommen, Zentner said it was a good time for a "reset'' at the top of the DNR, a fresh face. He said he knows Strommen will at least listen and consider environmental concerns going forward, but said state statutes, more than agency heads, guide most divisive issues.
"The reality is that there's only so much one person in the commissioner's office can do. It's more of how things are ushered through the system,'' Zentner said.
Frank Ongaro, executive director of Mining Minnesota, the copper mining industry group based in Duluth, called Strommen "clearly qualified'' for the top DNR job and said he expects she will be easily confirmed by the Senate. Ongaro also said he believes Strommen and Walz will listen to all sides as key issues surface.
While Ongaro said Strommen is "probably not the name I would have recommended'' he said he was "more concerned about what she is going to do in her new position going forward than what she did in her previous position in the past."
Ongaro said Strommen reached out to him as she was being selected for the job.
"From what it sounds like, from what she told me, she understands that there's a process in place and as long as the process is followed, we're OK with that,'' Ongaro said.
Career path joining science, people and policy
Strommen rattled off a list of priority issues that loom large for Minnesota. That includes trying to preserve dwindling wildlife habitat in agricultural areas; protecting water quality and water quantity (especially in agricultural areas); fighting invasive species across the state; and trying to curb chronic wasting disease, the always fatal deer disease now spreading in southeastern Minnesota.
She also said she wants to improve people's experiences whenever they come in contact with the DNR — buying licenses, getting permits or on a lake, in the field or woods.
"We touch a lot people's lives,'' she said, and the agency needs to "better connect with our customers."
Strommen, 46, is the first woman to hold the DNR commissioner post. She was selected by Walz over two other finalists: Tom Landwehr, the current DNR commissioner, and Keith Parker, the current central division director for the DNR.
Strommen is originally from St. Paul where she grew up in a family that liked to hike, visit state parks and spend a week each summer at a small northwoods resort "water skiing, fishing and doing the Minnesota thing." She now lives in the western Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth. Since 2015 she has served as assistant commissioner for the divisions of Fish and Wildlife and Parks and Trails within DNR.
After graduating from Grinnell College with a biology degree, she used a Fulbright research scholarship to do field work in Costa Rica and subsequently earned her master's degree in environmental management from Duke University.
In addition to the policy director position for the Friends group, she served as associate director of the Minnesota Land Trust which seeks to purchase and preserve key plots of undeveloped land to protect natural resources. She first worked for the state of Minnesota in 2012, serving as the assistant director and acting deputy director for the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.
After serving several terms on the Ramsey, Minn., City Council, Strommen was elected mayor of Ramsey in 2012 and held the office until May 2018.
Strommen said that elected position helped her understand how to bring sometimes diverse, even opposing viewpoints, together to craft better public policy. She first entered city politics because of a housing development proposed near her home in Ramsey — not because she opposed the development but because she felt city government wasn't listening to people's concerns.
"If you can be mayor of a small town and still have people like you, or at least respect you,'' Zentner said. "You can probably handle the DNR commissioner job."