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Overflowing natural resources legislation passes at Minnesota Capitol

Lawmakers adjourn after making “historic” improvements for the environment and outdoor recreation.

bull elk in Wisconsin
Wild elk will return to eastern Minnesota for the fist time in more than a century thanks to a $2.3 million provision approved by Minnesota lawmakers.
Contributed / Wisconsin DNR

ST. PAUL — You can legally light up that joint starting Aug. 1, your new tax rebate check will be in the mail this fall and there won’t be any price increase for a fishing license or state park permit for the foreseeable future.

That’s just some of the news Minnesota lawmakers provided residents from the 2023 legislative session that ended Monday at the Capitol, with outdoor and natural resources funding raised to unprecedented levels thanks in large part to the state’s nearly $18 billion budget surplus.

DFLers won control of state government in November, and with no Republican Senate majority in the way, have moved swiftly to enact many of their priorities.

But lawmakers also passed a bevy of natural resources policy changes, from addressing chronic wasting disease to transplanting elk to eastern Minnesota and requiring boat operators to obtain safety training certificates.

In fact, no matter what you love to do outdoors, the 2023 Minnesota Legislature probably had an impact on it.

The state is pumping some $1.6 billion over the next two years into clean energy, environmental, climate change, invasive species prevention, wildlife habitat, parks, fisheries and outdoor recreation — by far the largest such investment in state history, said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee.


“There’s never been anything close to this,” Hansen said Monday.

Much of the money and policy changes were in the omnibus environment and natural resources bill, with more money in the bonding package that lawmakers approved Monday, the last day of their 2023 session. Other provisions, like renewing the state’s environmental trust fund, passed as separate bills.

The natural resources money goes to programs administered by the Pollution Control Agency, Department of Natural Resources, Board of Water and Soil Resources and other agencies dealing with issues like climate change; protecting pollinators like bees and butterflies; fighting aquatic invasive species; managing the spread of emerald ash borer; tens of millions of dollars for conservation easements to protect sensitive soil, prevent erosion, save wetlands and capture carbon; and working on ways to keep cancer-causing PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” out of the environment.

Research shows eating one freshwater fish a year is similar to drinking PFOS-contaminated water for a month.

While the proposal to raise fishing license fees and state park fees was dropped, both of those areas will see large funding increases through the DNR as lawmakers opted to use the budget surplus and hold off on raising more fees. The exception is watercraft licenses, which are going up for the first time since 2007.

Just the DNR’s budget alone increases from about $1 billion to about $1.3 billion for the next two fiscal years, by far the largest increase ever.

DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen, DNR said most every Minnesotan should notice improvements not just in the facilities they use outdoors — parks, trails, wildlife management areas, boat landings and more — but also in how they are staffed, maintained and operated and how they are accessible to more people.

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“This was definitely an historic year for outdoors and natural resources in Minnesota,” Strommen said, adding that it will take a while for the agency to gear up for all the projects and programs.

“For years, we could get money for a new trail (from the Legislature), but we couldn’t get the money to fix the signs or repair the cracks. Now, we're fully funded (for operations) for the first time in my career,” said Bob Meier, DNR assistant commissioner for legislative matters.


Natural resources trust fund on '24 ballot

Minnesota voters will get another chance to renew the constitutional amendment that dedicates a portion of the state’s lottery profits to outdoor and natural resources needs through 2050. Under a bill approved by lawmakers the question will be on the ballot in November 2024.

In 1988, Minnesota voters passed constitutional amendments to establish a state lottery and to create the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund , a permanent trust with funding now provided by 40% of net lottery proceeds. The other 60% goes into the state's general fund. Voters renewed the deal twice more, each time by more than 2-to-1 margins.

Lawmakers this year increased the amount that can be spent each year from 5.5% to 7% of the fund’s total.

Voyageurs wolves S
Members of the Shoepack Lake pack of wolves in Voyageurs National Park are captured on a trail camera placed by researchers in the Voyageurs Wolf Project. Minnesota lawmakers have moved to renew the state's Environmental Trust Fund which pays for research like the Voyageurs project, but voters must approve the fund again in 2024.
Contributed / Voyageurs Wolf Project

Since 1991, when the lottery money started rolling in, the fund has provided nearly $875 million to nearly 1,800 projects around the state. That includes research like the groundbreaking Voyageurs Wolf Project that has uncovered never-before-known secrets of northern Minnesota’s wolves. Millions of trust fund dollars have gone to study and create the best habitat for wildlife, including Northeastern Minnesota's troubled moose population and helping the endangered tern population in Duluth’s harbor.

Amid the swarming, screeching, stinking mass of 40,000 or so ring-billed gulls, 180 nesting pair of common terns are hurriedly raising their chicks on Interstate Island in the middle of the Twin Ports harbor.

Project requests are vetted and funding decided by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources with final approval by the Legislature. The new legislation requires that at least 1.5 % of the money go to outdoor projects in underserved and minority communities.

Without voter approval the trust fund will expire at the end of 2024.

Minnesota lawmakers approved $35 million to improve boat landings across the state, part of a massive package of funding and policy changes for outdoors and environmental issues.
Contributed / Minnesota DNR

Outdoor legislation that passed

  • Eastern elk: Awards $2 million in state funds to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa to transplant dozens of northwestern Minnesota elk to Carlton and southern St. Louis counties to reestablish an eastern Minnesota elk herd. The DNR will get another $300,000 to cover its costs in the transplant effort.
  • CWD: The state moves to among the most stringent in the nation for rules for deer farms, which are seen as a vector for the spread of chronic wasting disease into wild deer herds. Legislation moves the responsibility for deer and elk farms from the state Board of Animal Health — which some groups had seen as too lax on deer farms — to the DNR. The bill also requires live animal CWD testing of captive deer and elk when those tests are approved. The changes tighten restrictions on cervid farms, including a permanent moratorium on any new farms, increased fencing rules and restrictions against importing any deer from areas with any history of chronic wasting disease in the past five years.
  • Electronic licenses: Requires the DNR to offer electronic proof of hunting, fishing and other licenses by March 2026, allowing license holders to show their license on a smartphone and not carry a paper license.
  • Boat landings: Provides $35 million to expand and enhance boat landings and shore fishing piers across the state.
  • Boat license fee increase: All are going up. The cost of a three-year license for a 17- to 19-foot motorboat will increase from $27 to $59, the first increase since 2007. The license for a non-motorized watercraft (canoes, paddleboards, kayaks over 10 feet long) goes from $10.50 to $22.
  • Boater safety permits: Requires boater safety education courses for adults as well as teens, phasing in restrictions over several years. Everyone born after 1987 will need to take the course and have the permit to operate a boat by 2028. 
  • Lake Vermilion State Park: The bonding bill has $11 million for a new visitors center at Lake Vermilion State Park near Tower.
DNR fish hatchery in Waterville, Minnesota
Minnesota lawmakers have approved $55 million for new and upgraded fish hatcheries across the state, including $20 million earmarked to rebuild the hatchery in Waterville.
Contributed / Minnesota DNR


  • Fish hatcheries: The general budget provides $35 million to upgrade several of the state’s fish hatcheries. The bonding/construction bill offers an additional $20 million for a total renovation of the hatchery in Waterville.
  • Stream restoration: $10 million for stream stabilization and restoration.
  • Improving access to public lands: $25 million for enhancing access and welcoming new users to public lands and outdoor recreation facilities, including improvements to improve climate resiliency.
  • State campgrounds: $5 million for modernizing camping and related infrastructure.
  • Lead fishing tackle: Provides $1 million to expand the state’s “Get the Lead Out” campaign to encourage anglers to stop using small lead fishing sinkers and jigs that can kill loons and swans if the birds ingest them. 
  • Treaty rights: $6 million for the state’s natural resource agreement with several Ojibwe bands covered by the 1854 Treaty. The longstanding agreement essentially pays the bands to not exercise their full tribal hunting and fishing rights in parts of Northeastern Minnesota.
Crossbows, like this one made by TenPoint, will be legal for anyone to use during the archery deer hunting season in Minnesota thanks to a change by the 2023 Minnesota Legislature.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

  • Crossbows: Archery deer hunters of any age or ability will be able to use crossbows during the archery deer season. Until now, only people ages 60 and older or with disabilities could use a crossbow. The law sunsets in two years unless it is renewed. The DNR is ordered to draft a report on the impact of broader crossbow use.
  • Wildlife restitution increased: The restitution charged people convicted of killing a wild animal will double if the act was determined to be done in a malicious way. The restitution price for a deer, for example, would jump from $300 to $600 in such cases. The provision was added after a man in Ely admitted in March that he intentionally ran down three deer with his truck ; they later had to be euthanized.
  • Automatic doe permits for youths: Residents or nonresidents under age 18 can take an antlerless deer in any area where antlerless permits are offered without applying for a permit. 
  • Deer stands: Deer and bear hunters in northwestern Minnesota will get to leave their portable deer stand out overnight on state Wildlife Management Areas.
  • Swan protection: Increase the crime for killing a swan from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor and increases the restitution for taking a tundra swan from $200 to $1,000 and for a trumpeter wan from $1,000 to $2,500.
  • North Shore bike trail: The bonding bill includes $4 million for additional construction of the Gitchi-Gami Trail along state Highway 61.
  • Rainy Lake landing: The bonding/construction bill includes $3.5 million for the construction of a safe harbor at Ranier on Rainy Lake.
  • ATV trails: The bonding construction bill includes $1.34 million for improvements to Voyageur Country, Prospector Loop and Quad Cities ATV trail systems.
  • State park goes to tribe: Transfers ownership of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park near Granite Falls to the Upper Sioux tribal community.
  • Fish die-offs: Changes how fish kills are reported in the state for faster response by state agencies.
  • Rough fish: Orders a study on the status of "rough fish" in Minnesota to determine which need more protections, with a report back to lawmakers to act in 2024.
  • Aquatic invasive species: Awards $4 million to the University of Minnesota for aquatic invasive species research and more than $10 million for projects and programs to combat the spread of AIS.
  • Minnows: Allows the DNR commissioner to enact emergency rules to alleviate an ongoing shortage of live bait in the state, including a possible temporary rule allowing minnows to be imported from neighboring states. Also requires the DNR to report back to the Legislature on what changes are needed to ensure enough Minnesota-grown minnows are available in the future.
    Golden shiner
    A golden shiner in a bait bag. Minnesota lawmakers have called for the DNR to consider allowing bait from neighboring states into Minnesota for the first time to help alleviate a shortage of some kinds of minnows.
    Contributed / Don Schreiner / Minnesota Sea Grant

Outdoor legislation that didn't pass

  • Wolf hunt ban: A provision that would have prevented the DNR from holding any wolf hunting or trapping season. The DNR keeps the authority to hold a season if and when the animal is ever released from federal Endangered Species Act protections. But because Gov. Tim Walz has said he opposes any sport wolf season, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon even if wolves are delisted.
  • Lead fishing tackle: A proposal to ban small lead fishing tackle to keep lead away from loons and swans, replaced by expanded funding to encourage the use of non-lead tackle.
  • Lead shotgun pellets: A proposal to require nontoxic shot on state lands in agricultural areas for bird hunting.
  • Dogs in traps: Efforts to tighten trapping regulations to protect dogs from being caught in traps.
  • Shotgun deer zone: An effort to eliminate the state’s shotgun-only deer hunting zone, and allow rifles for hunting statewide.
  • Waders: Efforts to ban the use of felt-soled waders in streams. The rule was considered to prevent the spread of an invasive algae called didymo, also called rock snot.

This story was updated at 3:26 p.m. May 23 to correct a photo caption about the amount of funding for boat landings. It was originally posted at 9:26 a.m. May 23. The News Tribune regrets the error.

more by john myers

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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