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CHRIS NISKANEN: Wetlands campaign may be an option
Outdoors Editor

Maybe it's time for Minnesota to launch another "Save the Wetlands" campaign. Or something like it.
Fifty-two years ago, visionary conservationists, tired of seeing Minnesota's
wetlands drained and degraded, launched a program to purchase wetland property from willing sellers and permanently protect it. The effort evolved into Minnesota's wildly successful Wildlife Management Area program, which to date has protected more than 1 million acres of public wetlands and uplands.
We need another "Save the Wetlands" effort because right now we're headed down the wrong path. More than 15,000 Minnesota waterfowlers head to North Dakota each fall because duck hunting in our state has declined. Despite anti-drainage laws, our wetlands continued to disappear, and the ones we have are of such low quality that they don't attract waterfowl anymore.
Yet in light of our sorry track record on wetlands, we're now sending Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to meet with North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven in October to discuss North Dakota's new unfriendly hunting laws placed on nonresidents, most of whom are Minnesotans.
As I stated in a column on Sunday, we Minnesotans - and in particular, Gov. Pawlenty - should be less concerned about getting more hunting access to North Dakota and more concerned about fixing our wetlands here at home.
Dozens of duck hunters, a few lawmakers and conservation group leaders have telephoned or emailed me in recent days, agreeing that we should try to improve our wetlands in Minnesota rather than expend our energy on getting more access to North Dakota. Fixing our wetland here, though, is a huge chore, one that might require our state leaders - and in particular, Gov. Pawlenty - to come up with bold solutions and a vision, rather than accept the status quo and think it's perfectly acceptable for Minnesotans to vacate this state every fall when the duck season opens.
But for those who think fixing our wetlands is a chore too big and too
expensive, let's remember that 52 years ago, a handful of conservationists
dreamed up the "Save the Wetlands'' initiative on a shoestring budget of
$50,000. Since then, Minnesotans have made small donations on their small-game hunting licenses in the form of a surcharge, pulled in other state and federal funding sources and marshaled our resources to fund the Wildlife Management Area program that spun out of the wetlands idea.
Dave Vesall, 86, retired as a Department of Natural Resources wildlife chief in 1979, but he was on the ground floor of the wetlands campaign more than 50 years ago. He remembers the day when Richard Dorer, the former supervisor of the Minnesota Game Bureau, walked into his office and said, "We've got $50,000 to spend on wetlands."
"Dorer was a great orator, and he got us going,'' Vesall said. "Then we got all our field men involved and we went out and started talking to farmers. From there, it grew throughout Minnesota."
Started in 1951, the "Save the Wetlands'' campaign reached its goal in 1972 of creating 200,000 acres of Wildlife Management Areas. Today, there are 1,300 Wildlife Management Areas totaling 1.1 million acres in 87 counties.
"We've accomplished a lot since then,'' said Vesall. "But we ought to do more, like including all the agencies in water policy. There's a lot we can still do."
Vesall had this advice for today's wetlands leaders: "Think big, but start
small. Our idea wasn't small back then, it was big, but the plan started small.
And we were thinking ahead."
Whatever we're doing right now, it's not enough. It's not acceptable to complain about North Dakota's nonresident hunting rules if we're not doing enough to fix our wetlands in Minnesota.
The evidence is under our noses. When Gov. Pawlenty travels Interstate 94 to Fargo to meet with Gov. Hoeven, he will pass a lot of wetlands that need our help. They're in Stearns County, Grant County, Pope County, Douglas County, Otter Tail County - they're in every county in Minnesota's farmland region.
And for that drive to Fargo, maybe Pawlenty should take along a waterfowl
biologist to explain why there aren't as many ducks in those wetlands as there used to be, and why Minnesotans flock every fall to North Dakota to see and hunt ducks.
Then Pawlenty should come back to St. Paul, have a meeting with the state's wetlands experts and come up with a vision to do something about it. We could call it "Save the Wetlands II."
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