The old saw “never turn down a free lunch” is good advice, even if it takes some effort to reach the table. Recently, I took an afternoon off and drove to St. Paul for a free dinner. Minnesota Outdoor News editor Rob Drieslien invited me to attend the annual legislative banquet for the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Alliance.
A coalition of conservation, sportsman’s and shooting organizations, MOHA’s mission is to protect the right to hunt, fish and pursue similar activities. Held while the Legislature is in session, the banquet allows MOHA members to mix with politians and bureaucrats.
“You can get a feel for what is going on in the Legislature,” said Drieslein when he invited me to attend.
During the social hour, hundreds of dinner guests mingled with politicians, DNR brass and political insiders. When it was time to take a seat, it was hard for three of us to find places at the same table.
After dinner was served, a line-up of speakers took the podium. Among them was Senator Amy Klobuchar, an adept and entertaining speaker who briefed the crowd about her work on national issues. Klobuchar’s efforts in Washington were key to removing Minnesota wolves from the federal Endangered Species List. She quipped that since the Governor holds a deer hunt, maybe she should host a Minnesota wolf hunt. She touched briefly on her efforts related to slowing the spread of invasive species and retaining conservation provisions in the impending Farm Bill.
Three state legislators followed Senator Klobuchar. First up was Rep. Kurt Zellers, the Speaker of the House, who told stories about accompanying Governor Dayton on the openers for fishing and pheasants. They were good stories, and may have been even better if the Governor–who cancelled due to illness–was in attendance. After a few minutes, it was clear Rep. Zellers was sticking to stories, rather than outdoor issues in the Legislature. I nudged Drieslein and whispered “He isn’t saying anything.”
Smiling, Drieslein responded, “Yeah, but he says nothing very well.”
After Zellers came Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee and then Rep. Denny MacNamara, chair of the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee. When I’ve listened to many previous committee leaders speak in similar settings, they’re usually given quick rundown of the issues their committee may address during the legislative session. This time, that didn’t really happen.
Their short talks were heavy on remarks that made little sense to anyone other political insiders and light on substance regarding outdoor issues. From what little they said, I surmised the Legislature might pass hunting, fishing and boating license fees increases. They may also mess around with the management of school trust lands. And quite possibly they will not approve all of the habitat funding recommendations forwarded from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Committee. About the only thing that seems certain is the Legislature will pass some kind of wolf hunting and trapping season. I asked Drieslein if it was just me, or if the legislators had to say came up short of his expectations.
“Maybe they don’t have much to offer,” he said.
After dinner, I met others who were unimpressed with what the legislators said—and didn’t say. A friend with long experience in conservation politics summed his feelings about the dinner speakers by saying, “I don’t know why we let politicians get away this crap.”
Later, driving north on I-35, I contemplated what I’d learned at my free dinner. If the MOHA banquet is opportunity to take the pulse of the Legislature, then we may not see much accomplished for conservation and the outdoors during this Session. If, as Drieslein says, the current politicians don’t have much to offer Minnesotans who use and care about the outdoors, that’s probably a good thing.
Another writer who attended the banquet, Star-Tribune outdoor columnist Dennis Anderson, wrote that those of us who are dismayed with politicians’ poor performance in protecting and conserving our state’s outdoor resources really have only ourselves to blame. Maybe so, but successful conservation mostly benefits the natural resources we hold in common. In politics, public good is often trumped to benefit special interests with deeper pockets.
Still, Minnesota is not Indiana or New Jersey, where what was once the outdoors has been paved, plowed or polluted. Our politicians should be mindful of the fact that we occupy a state brimming with outdoor splendor. Moreover, they should act in ways that demonstrate they share our collective pride in this place. Given their lackluster performance at the MOHA banquet, I’m not so sure that they do.