Sarah Strommen is one minute late—impressive considering she drove through a snowstorm to get here. The newly appointed head of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources credits her trusty Toyota Tacoma for the safe ride from her house in Plymouth to the agency's St. Paul headquarters. "I love that truck," she says, coffee in hand, settling into a conference room that overlooks downtown.
It's early February, and Strommen, 46, has been on the job for a month. The new role is a promotion for the St. Paul native, who had spent the past four years as an assistant commissioner at the DNR. Before that, she made her name working on environmental policy and conservation issues—first at nonprofits and later at the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. On the side, she immersed herself in small-town politics. Asked about her nearly six years as mayor of Ramsey, she says it was a natural fit given her passion for bringing the public "fuller conversations about complex issues."
Strommen's new gig will require more of that passion, as the state faces serious conservation challenges, including climate change and chronic wasting disease in deer populations. But on this snowy morning, things are relatively quiet for Minnesota's first female DNR boss. She's engaged and thoughtful as she talks about her past as well as her vision for the agency. Outside, the storm rages on.
Q |Your parents, Norm and Emily Rosenberg, were legendary history professors at Macalester College. Did that make for some stimulating dinner-table conversation when you were growing up?
My parents sometimes hosted classes in our living room, so we grew up around academic conversations. But there were four of us kids in the house. There was a lot of silliness, too.
Q |Where do you fall in the birth order?
I'm the oldest, but we're all close in age. With a set of twins, my parents had four kids in five years!
Q |What is your earliest memory of being in nature?
I remember biking a lot. My parents would put the bikes in the van and drive us down to the Mississippi River at Crosby Farm park. In summers, we'd swim at Fort Snelling. And when I got older, we'd go to Brookside Resort in Park Rapids. That's where I learned how to fish, right there on Two Inlets Lake.
Q |You seem like you're obsessed with fishing. There are a lot of bass, walleye, and perch pics in your Twitter feed.
[Laughs] My husband grew up hunting and fishing. When he and I got together, we fished a lot. And now my son is really into it. When you have a stressful week, all of that goes away when you fish. Even if you don't catch anything, it's relaxing.
Q |When did your interest in science begin?
I did post-secondary classes at Macalester during my senior year of high school. One of them was a chemistry class for non-chemistry majors. From there, I switched my focus to biology. I went into [Grinnell College in Iowa] knowing I wanted to be a biology major.
Q |You did field research in Costa Rica on a Fulbright Scholarship. Tell me more about that.
I studied abroad in Costa Rica my junior year of college. I ended up south of San Jose on Cerro de la Muerte—the mountain of death.
Q |I'm sure your parents loved that. "Hi, mom and dad, I'm on the mountain of death."
Yeah, the roads in those days were scary. It's a cold, cloud forest area. I was studying quetzals there. That first trip in Costa Rica solidified my love of birds. And then I came back to the same part of the country on the scholarship and looked at how the growing tourism and agroforestry industries were impacting the habitat in this very rich, biodiverse area.
Q |Were you mostly on your own during this time?
It's funny, on my second trip to Costa Rica, I told a professor that I wanted to do part of my research in this valley. He told me a place I could stay, but it didn't have any phones, so I had to get on a bus and tell the driver, "I need to get off at this specific mile marker." Then I had to hike miles down this dirt road into the valley until I saw this house. I told the women at the house that I needed a place to live and we settled on my rent right there. It was a big confidence booster. If you can adapt to things in another country, and adapt to different ways of interacting with people, you can do anything.
Q |And then you get your master's in environmental management from Duke and eventually work for nonprofits like the Minnesota Land Trust. Why did you decide to focus on land conservation and policy work rather than, say, field research?
I wanted to have a strong basis in science, but then translate that science to people making policy. I like working with people.
Q |Are you an extrovert?
No, but I've learned to operate as one.
Q |I bet that was true when you moved to Ramsey and joined its city council.
I had no idea what I was getting into. But serving as a local elected official was very rewarding.
Q |Did you face ageism or sexism on the council?
There was some of that. But I think people came to realize I was thoughtful and organized, and that I did my research and talked to people. As mayor, I tried not to view issues as "yes-no" and to see things from all sides.
Q |You're a relative newcomer to the DNR. Does that make things more challenging in your commissioner role? Or does it help to have a fresh perspective?
I think it's probably both. Thankfully, my leadership team is balanced with fresh eyes and people who have deeper experience.
Q |Where are you at in terms of processing your appointment as first female commissioner of the DNR?
I've received heartfelt notes from women who didn't see a path to workplace leadership until my appointment. If you don't see people like yourself in a leadership role, there's something still missing. I feel an obligation to think about who should be present at the agency as well as in our stakeholder groups—and not just from a gender perspective, but any group that isn't currently in the conversation.
Q |Part of your job is to talk to the public about hot-button issues. I've heard from many MCV readers who are concerned about the impacts of proposed mining projects on places like the BWCA. What do you say to those who share this concern?
There's an emotional element to this issue, and I completely acknowledge that. The BWCA is a special place for many people, including myself. But the DNR has an obligation to be objective and to look at mining proposals with science and process in mind. I believe most people want a fair and objective process, and we need to make sure the public is involved in that process.
Q |Another perennial concern is how to get more young people involved in hunting and angling. Does your 12-year-old son have any ideas?
There's a lot of promise on the fishing side in terms of upping youth engagement. My son is an only child, so I wanted him interacting with other kids and building social networks. His youth fishing club has been a fantastic opportunity to do that—to fish with adults and interact with other kids who share that interest.
Q |It's interesting you mentioned the social networking element of outdoor recreation.
It's important to find outdoor activities that families and communities can do together. My family time is outside time. We're at the cabin whenever we can. That's where we go to unwind—and to get away from home projects. [Laughs]