Et tu, DNR? Conservation officers now part of the state’s protest push back
Seventeen water protectors were arrested today in Aitkin County and were being held in jail overnight.
They were arrested at the site where Enbridge plans to bore under the Mississippi River for its new and larger Line 3 tars sands pipeline. Also, a nearby 10-day tree sit ended today when police brought in a crane.
I was part of a group of about 60 water protectors who showed up to support Stop Line 3 efforts.
I was not surprised to see law enforcement. I was surprised to be confronted by a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conservation officer. He stopped a small group of us as we were leavng the protest, walking back to our cars. His posture and tone were intimidating. He wasn’t wearing a mask.
“You are not free to go until you provide your ID’s,” he said.
We asked why, and he said because we were trespassing and authorities could decide to mail us a gross misdemeanor ticket.
In the grand scheme of Line 3 problems, a gross misdemeanor ticket is a nuisance. (Or perhaps more for young people who will get a criminal charge on their record that could affect their future housing or employment.)
However, this is a part of a disturbing trend. Recall that Gov. Tim Walz used DNR conservation officers to respond to George Floyd protests. He sent 75 conservation officers as part of state response to Oct. 7 protests that erupted when Derek Chauvin, the police officer accused of killing Floyd, was released on bond.
DNR conservation officers?
According to the DNR’s website:
As a licensed peace officer, conservation officers enforce laws related to fish and wildlife, state parks, trails, forests, waters and wetlands. They also perform public relations and education duties throughout the state.
That’s not a good fit for responding to an urban uprising over police misconduct.
For the big picture, consider the DNR’s mission statement:
To work with Minnesotans to conserve and manage the state’s natural resources, to provide outdoor recreation opportunities, and to provide for commercial uses of natural resources in a way that creates a sustainable quality of life.
Now consider the role of DNR conservation officers in responding to Line 3 protests.
The pipeline does not support a mission of “conserving and managing the state’s natural resources.” In fact, it does the opposite. The pipeline threatens the natural resources in its path. Further, crude oil pipelines don’t create “a sustainable quality of life.” Tar sands are a particularly dirty form of fossil fuels. The project will contribute significantly to climate damage locally and world wide.
Why are DNR conservation officers becoming the protest police? What are they “conserving”?
Those of us who went to today’s protest trod along a portion of the pipeline route Enbridge recently clear-cut. There were small “no trespassing” signs, such as the sign on the far left in the photo above. There was no gate barring our entrance.
There was a law enforcement car parked on the side of the road. No one got out to issue any warnings.
It seemed like tacit approval.
We walked to where the tree sitter had taken up a perch. While some did direct action, our group pretty much did drums and dancing.
When we tried to leave, a law enforcement car and several officers — DNR and Sheriff’s deputies — had been moved in place to block the exit.
I asked the DNR conservation officer: “Why didn’t you give a warning when we walked in?”
His answer was something to the effect of “there were 60 of you and only one of me.”
Which really isn’t an answer. Nothing stopped him from getting out of his car and telling people if they entered they faced a misdemeanor ticket. That would have given people fair warning.
One person in our small group was Lucia Wroblewski, a 28-year veteran of the St. Paul Police Department, now retired. She pushed back with the DNR officer, saying this wasn’t standard police protocol.
(I had never met Wroblewski before. But the next time the DNR officer pressed me for my ID, I pointed to Wroblewski and said: “I’m with her.”)
We eventually relented and provided the requested information.
Wroblewski would later text me that what happened was “Counter to any protest activity I’ve responded to as a cop or been involved in,” saying there was inadequate signage and no warnings given.
Comment: For laws to be respected, they need to be understandable and consistently enforced.
The right to protest is a cherished right in this country. Some people will choose to protest to the point of arrest, but those should be informed choices.
When rules and laws are inconsistently enforced, it will erode an already shaky trust in the system.