The next time you leave a Minnesota state park, think of the Department of Natural Resources. While maintaining Minnesota’s much-hyped recreational wilderness, the DNR is also assessing an ominous problem. How can the department sustain funding as younger generations shirk two significant sources of revenue, hunting and fishing?
At the helm is Sarah Strommen, Minnesota’s DNR commissioner as of 2019, who has made this one of her driving concerns. “It’s really where we’ve put our priority marker in the ground and said, ‘This is something really important and fundamental that we can accomplish here,’” she says.
To start, think of just a few among the department’s many custodial efforts: using pesticides on invasive zebra mussels, monitoring chronic wasting disease in deer, and overseeing the health of our waters, forests, and wildlife amid climate-related challenges.
It all requires a good deal of funding. For 2022-23, the DNR’s budgeted expenditures total $1.3 billion. And a sizable portion of that funding—about 30%—comes through license and registration fees for hunters, anglers, and boaters, plus excise taxes on the manufacture of hunting, fishing, and boating equipment. Hunting and fishing license fees make up more than half of the Game and Fish Fund, and licensing and registration comprises 18% of the DNR’s total budget.
This all constitutes a “user pay, user benefit” funding model, developed in the ’30s and ’50s. And it’s no longer cutting it.
“There’s just been a decline in the number of hunters and anglers,” Strommen says about the nationwide issue. “We’re seeing the baby boom generation aging out of many activities across hunting and fishing,” she explains. “We also have so many things that compete for young people’s time now.” In other words, rising generations of millennials and Zoomers fish and hunt less than their parents did.
Today, the DNR is strapped. From 2015 to 2020, as the department watched a gradual decline in hunting and fishing licenses, appropriations to most of its funds (including the Game and Fish Fund) staggered behind inflation, and costs of doing business climbed.
The pandemic apparently spurred outdoor activities, however, with sales of hunting and fishing licenses jumping in 2020.
Still, a recent DNR report forecasted the return of downward trends through 2025. In fact, by the start of 2022, the department was watching pre-COVID trends reappear.
Minnesota has fared better than other states, Strommen says. “The absolute number of hunters and anglers has remained relatively flat,” adds Vanessa Perry, the DNR’s planning director—but their proportion of the population is less.
The hit to revenue is already evident, as the DNR can no longer afford to conduct fish and angler surveys on certain smaller lakes, Strommen says. Habitat surveys have also dwindled: The DNR conducted 80 vegetation surveys annually between 2011 and 2013, but that number has shrunk to 20 for each of the last three years. Regarding state parks and trails, maintenance is also less than desired.
The question, then, is how to rejigger—or replace—the funding framework.
Suggestions are in no short supply. The state could raise fees, try to attract new hunters and anglers, impose new fees on biking or hiking trails, or apply excise taxes to a broader swath of outdoor gear. “Those are all solutions that we have heard through our public-engagement process,” Strommen says.
But raising fees or applying new ones risks the accessibility of the outdoors. “Of course, one of our focuses is to make sure that Minnesota’s outdoor experiences are available to all,” Strommen stresses.
The state legislature has increased appropriations to the DNR in recent years to tackle specific emerging issues—but not for base operations, Perry notes. In a recent budget session, Strommen used state parks to illustrate how a lean budget impacts outdoor experiences: “That means that bathrooms, that campgrounds may be cleaned less often; it could mean that a fix that needed to be done to a wastewater system can’t be done.”
Late last summer, to help roadmap the future, the department tapped a number of advisers, whom they consult individually and whose backgrounds span resource management, the nonprofit sector, public policy, and other areas. For ideas, the DNR is also researching other states’ responses to the issue.
In a way, this financial conundrum mirrors the critical point that launched North America’s conservation movement more than a century ago. This model of wildlife preservation took shape in the late 19th century, after market hunters—driven by such advancements as railways and refrigeration—had nearly depleted certain game. In response, recreational hunters (the Teddy Roosevelts of the frontier) popularized natural upkeep.
Later, through the fees and excise taxes, hunters and anglers became true benefactors of nature. “It’s obviously that link that helps foster connection and really passionate stewards,” Strommen says, “because folks feel invested in that financial contribution they’re making.”
Nikki Bentley, chair of the Budgetary Oversight Committee and one of the DNR’s advisers, says she fell in love with Minnesota’s freshwater wealth after moving here for college and leaving behind the fishing ponds of her North Dakota youth. “And as silly as it sounds—I’m an old millennial—but [the DNR] needs to get on TikTok or something,” she says. “They need to figure out how to connect with Gen Z and even start thinking about how they’re going to market to Generation Alpha in order to get kids outside and interested in outdoor activities.”
Since 2016, the department has administered a grant program specifically to “recruit, retain, and reactivate” hunters and anglers in the face of flagging participation rates. But there may not be enough time. “The fund sustainability of the Game and Fish Fund has been forecasted to be completely depleted since I started working in oversight—so, it’s always, like, five or six years out from being completely gone, or completely in the negative,” Bentley says.
Adding to the pressure, the need for conservation appears to be ramping up. The pandemic pushed droves outside, Strommen observes, and the DNR recently announced it would hand out 13% fewer permits for the Boundary Waters this year, reportedly to lessen wear on natural resources.
Of course, there’s also climate change. “In this moment, when we’re experiencing so much change in our natural resources—some of that due to climate—it’s really important that we understand those changes, and that we have the data and can make the decisions,” Strommen says, noting the importance of surveys.
The public can offer funding suggestions via an engagement portal online. “We want to make sure that we’re starting conversations early enough that we’re not at a crisis stage,” Strommen says, emphasizing that we’re not there yet.
“It’s hard to predict when that comes,” she continues, “but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing the prudent and responsible thing about looking forward to make sure we can continue to maintain these opportunities that people enjoy. Because we know we can see signs.”
Share your funding ideas for Minnesota’s state parks and wilderness areas at engage.dnr.state.mn.us