The recent announcement that Dave Epperly will no longer serve as director of the Minnesota DNR’s forestry division is discussed in the current issue of the Timber Bulletin, the bimonthly magazine of the Minnesota Timber Producer’s Association. Epperly and Forestry stalwart Bob Tomlinson were reassigned as part of what TPA executive vice president Wayne Brandt describes as “sweeping changes” within the Forestry Division. Although Epperly and Tomlinson’s reassignment received limited media coverage, it is the first ripple in the political pond we’ve seen from DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr.
And it’s a large pond. While many folks think the DNR is mostly about hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation, the agency manages millions of acres of forests. Timber harvested on state lands is the single largest source of wood for Minnesota’s forest products industry. Needless to say, the industry is a large and influential DNR constituency, especially in the north. It’s also a constituency that feels it was blindsided by the Landwehr administration’s proposed changes to the Forestry Division. Not only was the forestry constituency unaware change was in the offing, but most were satisfied with Epperly’s leadership.
Here’s a little history. Epperly, who was previously the St. Louis County land commissioner, was hired as Forestry director when Gene Merriam was DNR commissioner and continued to serve as director throughout Mark Holsten’s term as commissioner. Longtime DNR watchers will recall the timber industry was less than enthusiastic about Merriam’s appointment as commissioner. Holsten was named his deputy to placate the industry. More recently, Landwehr was not Governor Dayton’s first choice for commissioner (northwestern Minnesota legislator Rod Skoe was considered his frontrunner), but received the nod when sportsman’s groups noted the Governor made a campaign promise to appoint “one of their own.” Again, the timber industry was less than enthusiastic about the appointment.
And here’s why. Brandt writes, “…we are keeping a close eye on what some are viewing as a purge of the Division of Forestry. It’s no secret that the backgrounds of the people in the Commissioner’s office are orientated towards wildlife and conservation.” Although it sounds like the paranoid raving of a timber beast, Brandt’s remark refers to a decades-old DNR internal dispute between Forestry and other disciplines, such as Wildlife and EcoServices. Simply put, Forestry is responsible for land management and views the forest as trees grown for eventual harvest. The other disciplines consider forest habitat and ecological functions as important or more important than timber harvest. All disciplines have input in forest planning, including planned harvests. Very often, internal disputes about where and how much to cut occur at the local level.
Brandt reports such disputes have led to low morale among DNR field staff, although I don’t ever recall a time when DNR staffers said morale was good. Brandt writes: “One story we hear about these changes is low morale among (Forestry) Division staff, particularly at the field level. Well, it’s tough to have good morale when foresters are continuously attacked by the anti-harvesting folks in Eco Services and some in Wildlife. Some of these folks continuously argue against active forest management. Their solution to every issue is to have more old forests and old timber. It’s also tough for the Division of Forestry to move forward on policy changes when every issue becomes a prolonged negotiation with other divisions.”
If Brandt is correct about the extent of internal bickering, and I suspect he is, than the issue may be less about forest management than it is about a dysfunctional bureaucracy. Changing leadership in the Division of Forestry may not make the bickering go away. After all, it’s been going on for years. More to the point, many in the forestry community believe the DNR will have a tough time finding a new Forestry director. Apparently, few potential candidates exist. Several folks have told me they don’t believe anyone within the DNR will apply for the job and they are not sure how many qualified candidates are available outside the agency. Other state forestry director positions are open around the country. Minnesota may not be able to compete for the best candidates.
Brandt writes that it is up to Commissioner Landwehr and his administration to find a forestry director and resolve the internal bickering within the agency. How the Landwehr administration addresses these related issues will determine whether the ripple in the pond subsides or becomes an angry wave. Rest assured legislators on both sides of the aisle are aware of the DNR’s forestry issues and of the timber industry’s concerns. In addition to getting its house in order, the DNR needs to do a better job explaining its forest management policies to loggers, hunters and the public at large. Perhaps if we had a better understanding how the DNR manages our forests, we could understand why the agency has so much trouble reaching internal agreement on its management decisions.