Top Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials will meet later this month with critics of the agency's plan to change timber cutting policy on state wildlife management areas.

DNR officials, including Commissioner Sarah Strommen, have agreed to the meeting with conservation groups upset over the DNR using WMAs as part of an effort to meet a new, statewide quota for state-land timber harvest.

A coalition of more than a dozen conservation and environmental groups — Izaak Walton League chapters, the National Wildlife Federation and Duluth-based United Northern Sportsmen’s Club — sent the DNR a letter Nov. 19 seeking a meeting with the agency and resolution of the issue.

"The hope is to get together and talk face-to-face and relay our thought process on this. There's some misconception out there on what is actually happening," said Dave Olfelt, director of the DNR's Fish and Wildlife Division, told the News Tribune.

No date has been set, but the meeting is expected to occur in the next few weeks.

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In addition to the private meeting, DNR officials have agreed to include state land forest management as one session during the agency's annual "Roundtable'' event scheduled for Jan. 24 in the Twin Cities. Olfelt said he expects the WMA logging issue to be raised at that session.

The News Tribune first reported the issue in August as critics claimed the DNR’s new logging plan makes timber harvest for the state’s wood products industry the guiding force for logging on WMAs. That appears contrary to state and federal laws, which require that wildlife habitat and management be the only driver of timber harvest on WMAs. Federal grants are often used to purchase WMA land and critics have said the DNR’s logging plan violates federal rules on how the land must be managed.

“The harvest of timber on WMAs and AMAs must be for habitat management purposes consistent with federal regulations. The harvesting of timber from WMAs and AMAs for the sole purpose of meeting a timber harvest acres or other silvicultural goal or deriving income is not allowed on federal aid interest lands,” the code of federal regulations states.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently auditing the DNR on use of federal funds designated wildlife management. That includes field audits in some state WMAs expected yet this month.

Several current DNR wildlife managers blasted the logging plan in a letter to Strommen last summer. Several retired DNR biologists and wildlife groups have continued to press the issue, saying wildlife management areas were purchased with money from license sales and federal taxes paid by hunters expressly for wildlife and public access, not to supply paper mills.

It’s not so much the amount of logging that critics are concerned about —logging is often good for species that depend on young forests — but the lack of lack of local control by wildlife managers over how, when, where and why the logging is done on WMAs.

The new DNR plan calls for Wildlife Management Areas to produce 12% of a new quota of 870,000 cords of wood logged each year off all forested state land open to logging. The new quota was first announced by the DNR in 2018 following a year of scientific modeling of state-owned forested land and with input from both environmental groups and industry officials. The new plan is just now going into effect.

Top agency officials have continued to defend the logging quota as based in sound science. They say wildlife managers and conservation groups have misunderstood their intentions and the plan’s details. But the DNR's own wildlife experts say the agency is favoring the timber industry over wildlife and the people who frequent wildlife management areas to hunt, hike and bird watch.

DNR officials ordered wildlife managers not to talk to the media about the issue. But in the letter to Strommen , signed by 28 wildlife managers, their concerns were clearly stated.

“Harvesting at this level of intensity jeopardizes long-term conservation of many wildlife species dependent on older forests for all or part of their life,” wrote Tower-area wildlife manager Tom Rusch in the letter to his boss.

The wildlife experts raised concerns about specific regions, with Duluth managers saying the DNR plan risked cutting too many old trees on state land for some wildlife species that depend on them. WMAs “are the only public lands currently providing significant old forest habitat in our work area,” Duluth area wildlife managers wrote in the letter to the commissioner, saying they had proposed reserving selected stands of older forest for fisher and marten habitat and winter habitat for deer and moose.

If the DNR plan goes through, WMAs in the Duluth region “will no longer support adequate habitat for many species,'' the biologists added.

The DNR manages 2.7 million acres of “productive timber land” that was included in the new timber harvest plan.

Rich Staffon, president of the Duluth-area chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America and a retired DNR wildlife manager with 36 years on the job, told the News Tribune in August the local wildlife managers should have the final say in what gets cut on wildlife lands.

“This is a pretty blatant example of how we have a public resource being managed for a single special interest industry,’’ Staffon said. “As a hunter, $4 of my small-game license goes to wildlife management areas, and I want them managed for wildlife, not for the timber industry.”