Wetlands, mining likely to be high on environmental agenda for Minnesota Legislature



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MINNEAPOLIS — One of the top environmental issues in the legislative session that opens in January could be how best to protect Minnesota's wetlands.

The GOP takeover of the Minnesota House has changed the landscape for the environment and natural resources at the Capitol. Republican leaders have given a strong signal of their priorities by restructuring the committees that will deal with those issues. There will be a new Mining and Outdoor Recreation Policy Committee, for one thing.

The committee lineup remains the same in the Senate, where Democrats remain in control.

Here's a look at what major players expect will be likely themes:

WETLANDS

Minnesota law aims for no net loss of wetlands. If a project destroys a certain number of acres of wetlands, it's supposed to restore or create a similar number nearby. That's been hard for the mining industry in northeastern Minnesota, where fewer wetlands have been lost compared with the rest of the state, so fewer options are available for restoring or creating them. Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, said it might make more sense to restore former wetlands farther away from new or expanding mines, perhaps producing more acres of better quality wetlands in the process. "It could be a win-won for the environment," he said. But Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation, said he expects pushback from some environmental groups.

MINING

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, chairman of the new Mining and Outdoor Recreation Policy Committee, said he expects his panel to look for ways to encourage copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota, a sensitive issue he believes Democrats have largely ignored in recent years. He said he wants to "bring forth some legislation that's going to get the ball rolling up there," and see what obstacles could be removed. "This is an opportunity for Minnesota to grow jobs and grow our economy," he said. "If we can do it in an environmentally friendly way there's no reason we shouldn't be doing it." But environmentalists can be expected to resist any specific proposals for weakening clean water protections to benefit the mining industry.

GAME AND FISH

McNamara said he expects lawmakers will want to talk about the Department of Natural Resources' management of the struggling walleye population in Mille Lacs Lake and the state's low deer population, but isn't sure that will lead to legislation. Resort owners and anglers have been sharply critical of the tight restrictions the DNR imposed on Mille Lacs this year in hopes of reviving its walleye stocks. The DNR also imposed tight restrictions on deer hunting to rebuild the herd. Critics of wolf hunting have been campaigning for a moratorium without success so far, and aren't expected to fare much better this session.

ATVs

Hackbarth said one of his priorities will be coming up with a better legal definition of all-terrain vehicles to keep up with changing technology. Manufacturers keep re-inventing the machines, and they've gotten bigger over the years. The definition matters because it affects which machines can use which trails, he said. "We have wide trails and easy-riding trails that are not too difficult, and then you have more challenging trails. Some of these bigger machines probably shouldn't be on these more challenging trails," he said.

CLEAN ENERGY

Major environmental groups plan to unveil a clean energy package ahead of the session. Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said he's hopeful despite the changes in the House. "Across the political landscape there's tremendous support for clean energy like wind and solar. ... It's a major driver of new jobs in this state, a lot of rural Minnesota jobs," he said. Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said there's a clear trend toward more energy efficiency and renewable power and away from coal.

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