Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to announce soon his choice for Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, one of the toughest in state government.
The department is often in the middle between clashing economic and environmental interests. The stakes are particularly high in Northern Minnesota where controversial new mining projects pit water quality against the promise of new jobs.
The new commissioner will play a lead role in permitting new mining projects.
PolyMet Mining plans a surface copper-nickel mine northeast of Hoyt Lakes, while Twin Metals hopes to dig copper-nickel and precious metals underground south of Ely. Together they might add hundreds of jobs to this hardscrabble region.
Ely Mayor Roger Skraba is pushing Dayton to pick someone sympathetic to the projects. In a letter to the governor signed by a handful of regional mayors, Skraba notes the support Dayton received from the region. That might have accounted his slender margin of victory over Republican Tom Emmer.
"Northeastern Minnesota gave him the support because, we feel we're labor, we're jobs," Skraba said." We feel that this governor is going to listen to us and support the jobs of northeastern Minnesota."
Skraba is a canoe outfitter and his livelihood depends heavily on the area's pristine environment.
Environmentalists warn that pollution from the mining projects would pose a serious, long-term threat to the area's waters. But Skraba said he has confidence in the mining technology and the people behind the mining projects.
Last week, Dayton appointed an environmental advocate, Paul Aasen, to head the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency -- another state agency closely involved with mine permitting. Aasen had worked for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
Dayton administration officials declined to comment. But Skraba hopes Dayton will seek to balance Aasen's appointment with his DNR choice. Skraba favors someone like Larry Kramka the department's current assistant commissioner, considered one of the leading candidates.
But another leading contender, Tom Landwehr, has strong environmental ties. Landwehr, assistant state director for the Nature Conservancy of Minnesota is a former DNR official.
Peggy Ladner, the conservancy's state director, describes Landwehr as someone who is passionate about Minnesota's natural resources and who would lean toward environmental protection -- something mining interests might not want to hear.
"In Minnesota we have some pretty incredible natural resources -- water, prairie, forests," Ladner said. "They are very important for public recreation, which translates into tourism dollars. And they're very important for wildlife habitat, and fundamentally for our quality of life."
In addition to tourism and mining, the DNR appointment will have implications for a range of other interests, including timber, fishing and hunting.
State lawmakers from the area are publicly treading lightly.
The comments of state Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Itasca County, are typical. He wants a commissioner familiar with northern Minnesota's resource balancing act.
"I'm hopeful that the next DNR Commissioner will be knowledgeable and understanding of the challenges that our wood products and out mining industry have," Anzelc said.
Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said he hopes Dayton will pick someone with a background in resources protection.
The ideal candidate "would not be closely tied to the industries that they're regulating and be very open and transparent in the way they do business," Morse said.