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Outdoor groups urge Minn. lawmakers to approve fee increases

Dan Wilfond, right, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries specialist at French River, prepares to measure a northern pike while doing a fisheries survey on Grand Lake north of Duluth in 2015. At left is Peter Nasby, a DNR fisheries intern. Forum News Servce file photo

DULUTH, Minn.—The time is now to increase hunting and fishing license fees, says a coalition of Minnesota hunting, fishing and environmental groups.

Forty-eight of those groups — deer hunters, anglers and conservationists — have signed on to a letter sent Tuesday, March 14, to legislative leaders, urging action this session to make incremental increases in license fees before the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has to begin cutting staff or programs.

"What's happening is (the DNR) has been running a structural deficit of $3 million a year," said John Lenczewski, executive director of Minnesota Trout Unlimited. "Sometime in 2019, (the Game and Fish Fund) is projected to go negative. By law, you cannot run a deficit. Starting next year, they'll have to cut money spent on staff or fish stocking or other programs."

Lenczewski also serves as chair of the DNR's Game and Fish Fund Budgetary Oversight Committee, a citizen committee which reviews the DNR's finances. License fees are the main source of funding for the DNR's Game and Fish Fund.

Under the proposed increases, a deer hunting license would rise from $30 to $34. An annual fishing license would rise $3, from $22 to $25. Several other licenses also are affected.

"Even with the $3 bump, Minnesota's fishing license is an incredible bargain for a year's worth of quality fishing," Lenczewski said. "That small increase costs less than a scoop of minnows or a bag of chips at the gas station."

The Arrowhead Fly Fishers group, based in Duluth, supports the fee increase proposal, said Mary Lou Donovan, club president.

"License fees have not increased in a long time," Donovan said. "Expenses go up for any operation... Stocking of fish for some of our local trout streams has been discontinued because of lack of funding for the DNR."

The DNR will need the fee increase revenue not only for its regular activities, but also to develop a new deer management plan now in the works and to combat chronic wasting disease in deer, said Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation.

Groups that signed the letter to legislators included the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Minnesota Trout Unlimited, the Minnesota Conservation Federation and the Minnesota Division of the Izaak Walton League. Northland groups that signed on include Arrowhead Fly Fishers, Gitchee Gumee Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Lake Superior Steelhead Association and the Lake Superior Chapter of Muskies Inc.

Historically, the DNR has sought license fee increases every six to 10 years to keep up with inflation. The last time fees were increased, in 2012, the Legislature approved a fishing license fee increase that was $2 less than the agency had requested.

"That gave (the DNR) a structural deficit that's been building," Lenczewski said.

If a fee increase is approved this year, he said, it would not take effect until next year. Lenczewski is concerned that legislators don't understand the sense of urgency in the situation. As early as last year, the Game and Fish Fund Budgetary Oversight Committee had urged the DNR to come up with a fee-increase proposal, Lenczewski said.

In its letter to the legislature, the groups also are seeking a $3 million per year appropriation from the state's general fund to support DNR activities. Angling and hunting annually generate about $5.5 billion in economic activity in the state, support 48,000 jobs and generate $358 million in state and local tax revenue, they said.

General fund appropriations to the DNR happened routinely until 2010, Lenczewski said. Since then, except for a one-time appropriation to combat avian flu, general fund appropriations to the DNR's Fish and Wildlife Division have dropped to near zero, according to the coalition.

"This recent lack of financial support (from the general fund) does not make sense when one considers the myriad benefits which all Minnesotans receive from sound management that produces healthy ecosystems and clean lakes and streams," the letter states.

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