Minnesota governor aims for balance with enviro agency picks

Source: By Walker Orenstein, MinnPost/Associated Press • Posted: Tuesday, January 15, 2019

State agencies in Minnesota often play an outsized role in bitter fights between environmentalists and industry — such as mining proposals or anti-pollution regulations for agriculture — and have sometimes drawn frustration across the political spectrum in recent years over permitting decisions and enforcement practices.

So for incoming Gov. Tim Walz, a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party who campaigned on running a government that builds bridges among different factions, a slate of Cabinet picks named recently represents his first significant foray into trying to create a delicate balancing act.

Walz said he has selected leaders who are “problem solvers and consensus builders” at four environmentally related agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). None came from state or federal elected offices, where partisan histories can inflame debate.

The initial reaction? A somewhat calm and cautious response from politicians and others involved in thorny debates over jobs and environmental protection.

Nancy Norr, who chairs Jobs for Minnesotans, an organization of labor and businesses interests that supports natural resource projects such as copper-nickel mining, said it’s early to judge whether the appointees will ultimately be friends or foes on specific projects, but noted that they have “exemplary experience for these roles” and a “real commitment to public service.”

Walz appointed Thom Petersen, the government relations director for the Minnesota Farmers Union, to run the Department of Agriculture. Laura Bishop, who was the chief corporate responsibility and sustainability officer at Best Buy, was tapped to lead the MPCA. Jan Malcolm, the commissioner of the Department of Health, was asked to stay on in her job. Finally, Walz picked Sarah Strommen, an assistant commissioner at DNR, to take over the agency.

Some environmentalists have been furious at decisions from DNR and others to permit controversial projects like the PolyMet copper-nickel mining plan near Hoyt Lakes. The MPCA drew flak from industry and some environmental groups for a new rule created to protect wild rice, which was eventually withdrawn.

At least some environmental organizations cheered Walz’s picks. Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota and a member of the Walz transition advisory board, said it’s important to set a theme and tone with appointments, and Walz landed on a “pretty pragmatic group” capable of being trusted by a wide array of people. Austin’s organization is dedicated to finding compromises on environmental issues.

Walz’s choice for a new DNR commissioner was particularly notable. Strommen will be the first woman to serve in the role and was picked over the current commissioner, Tom Landwehr, who was a finalist for the position.

Strommen has been in the DNR’s Fish and Wildlife division and Parks and Trails division but previously was the policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, which has staunchly opposed the PolyMet copper-nickel mining plan near Hoyt Lakes and a proposal by Twin Metals to build a copper-nickel mine near Ely on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Strommen deflected questions on the Twin Metals mine plan, saying only that she would approach it the same as any other natural resources project. She did say she doesn’t expect to readdress the critical permits granted in November to the PolyMet mine by DNR.

Still, her selection was a welcomed by Jeremy Drucker, a spokesman for the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, another group dedicated to opposing Twin Metals. Drucker said he thinks Strommen will have “an open mind” and make decisions based on science and evidence, which he expects to favor denying permits.

Ultimately, Walz said, his administration won’t dodge tough questions on environmental projects, but he said he hopes his agencies offer a “reset” on some of the most divisive issues, “at least to show we’re trying to approach this in a different way.”