The DNR is undertaking a process to evaluate SNAs on a site-by-site basis to consider allowing additional recreational uses. We are focusing on evaluating about 15-25 SNAs across the state. Additional uses could be allowed on these SNAs if they are compatible with the purposes for which the SNA was acquired. Below we explain what SNAs are, the purpose for this project, what the next steps are, and how and when the public will have opportunity for input.
No hearings have been scheduled at this time. It is anticipated that a number of hearings will be held in March-April 2014.
Minnesota's Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) "protect and perpetuate in an undisturbed natural state those natural features which possess exceptional scientific or educational value" (Minnesota Statutes 86A.05, subd. 5). SNAs are one type of unit in the state Outdoor Recreation System which was created by the Minnesota legislature through the 1975 Outdoor Recreation Act and which are managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). SNAs are established by DNR Commissioner's Designation Orders or, in the case of the peatland SNAs, by statute.
Typically, SNAs are native plant communities that contain rare plants and animals and may also have unique geological features. Currently, Minnesota has 159 SNAs encompassing 185,000 acres. They represent a diverse set of natural habitats across the state from the world-class extensive pattern peatlands in northern Minnesota to native prairie remnants in the west and south, from unique shorelines along Lake Superior and other natural streams and lakes to the blufftops of the southeast.
Nearly all the SNAs are open to the public all the time. Out of the 159 SNAs, only 9 SNAs have restrictions on public access. A few SNAs (Bruce Hitman Heron Rookery, Butterwort Cliffs, Cherry Grove Blind Valley, Egret Island, Hemlock Ravine, Pig's Eye Heron Rookery, Pine & Curry Island, Wykoff Balsam Fir) are sometimes closed or partially closed to protect nesting birds or fragile slopes or caves. Only one SNA, the Blaine Airport Rich Fen SNA, is always closed because of airport security reasons. The best way to find out if a particular SNA has use restrictions is to go to that SNA's webpage.
SNAs are intended for recreational activities that have little or no impact on the natural resources they are designated to protect. All SNAs open to public use offer opportunities such as hiking, bird watching, nature photography, and snowshoeing. Some SNAs also provide opportunities for hunting and fishing; currently, 165,900 acres or 88% of the acres designated as SNAs are open to some form of public hunting. In the hunting season starting in the Fall of 2013, 25 SNAs (comprising 149,900 acres) are open to all public hunting and trapping; another 21 SNAs (comprising 6,400 acres) are open to all public hunting; and another 18 SNAs (comprising 9,500 acres) are open to some forms of hunting (such as deer only, archery only or special hunts). Fishing is allowed at 28 SNAs. Dogs are allowed at 25 SNAs, usually in association with hunting. Horses and horse trails that existed prior to SNA designation are only allowed at one SNA. One SNA is transected by a developed regional non-motorized bicycle trail and another bicycle trail is allowed in the designation order, but not yet developed. At least three paved state trails immediately adjoin, but are not in SNAs. Three SNAs have authorized pedestrian trails. Field roads and unauthorized paths may exist on other SNAs. Find out what activities are allowed at which SNAs.
The DNR is interested in increasing public awareness of, support for, and involvement in SNAs. In 2012, with support from the Environment and Natural Resource Trust Fund (as recommended by the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources), the DNR launched an SNA public outreach initiative to increase public engagement in SNAs. Through that initiative, the SNA Program now has volunteer site stewards for over 110 of the SNAs; a number of the site stewards and some partner groups are hosting interpretive and stewardship events at SNAs to which the public is invited. Also, in cooperation with Minnesota State Parks, the SNA Program is offering naturalist-led activities at some SNAs. The SNA website was upgraded as the one-stop shop for information on SNAs and events. Plus, the SNA Program now has a quarterly "Nature Notes" e-newsletter that you can subscribe to.
SNAs are greatly appreciated by a passionate but relatively small fraction of the public, in part, because people don't know about these unique resources or don't understand how they can utilize these lands. Increasing the opportunities for recreational opportunities on SNA without detracting from their ecological values, could expand appreciation and long-term support for the program. The SNA program is dependent on funding from a variety of sources, including the Environment and Natural Resource Trust Fund, Outdoor Heritage Fund, bonding and General Fund. Without more interest and support, SNAs could decline because of increased competition and limited availability of funds.
DNR staff will complete an evaluation of each candidate SNA for additional recreational activities using an established set of criteria (see below). Subsequently, potential recreational uses will be identified for each SNA selected through this evaluation process and a public hearing will be held to gain public input on the proposal. The DNR Commissioner will then decide on a case-by-case whether to allow additional public uses at each SNA under consideration. The changes would take effect when the revised Commissioner's order is published in the State Register.
The activities being considered are those that do not pose risk for damage to the SNA's natural resources.
Higher impact uses, such as those that require development of recreational facilities (e.g. camping, recreational fires, motorized uses, horse or paved bike trails, and picnic facilities), are not being considered.
DNR staff will make an objective evaluation of the appropriateness of each activity considered for each SNA based on criteria established in Minnesota Rules 6136.0550, subpart 6. The general guidance in rules is that recreational activities may be allowed to enhance public use of an SNA or the surrounding area if the activities are compatible with the purpose for which the SNA was acquired. Rules also provide six primary criteria to consider in making this determination:
Additional considerations include: compatibility of the use with the purposes for which the SNA was acquired (e.g., high risk to highly sensitive resources); availability of needed access or parking; proximity of adjoining houses (e.g., existing residential subdivision); and local ordinances.
Public comment opportunities will be provided for each SNA where changes in recreational uses are proposed. Individuals or groups can provide oral or written input at a public hearing or submit written comment for inclusion in that SNA's public hearing record. For each specific hearing, instructions will be provided on how written comments can be submitted via email or U.S. mail.
Public hearings have not yet been scheduled. It is anticipated that a number of hearings will be held in March-April 2014. One hearing will be held for each SNA considered for additional recreational use. When candidate SNAs are near each other a single hearing may be held for multiple sites. Hearings will be held in public meeting places on weekday evenings, typically in a city/town in the county in which the SNA is located. Specific public hearing times and locations will be announced (see below).
Every public hearing regarding recreation uses on SNAs will be publicized in multiple ways:
Each of these forms of publicity will give the date, time, and location for the hearing as well as instructions on submitting written comments for the hearing record by email or U.S. mail.