DULUTH — Even when he was very young, Dave Zentner realized that he needed to be outdoors. He was growing up in rural South Dakota, and at 7 or 8 years old, he was allowed to roam free at the edge of town.
“I knew really early that I wanted to be in nature,” Zentner said. “I was able to take the family dog and run around the outskirts. I was allowed to be by myself. I knew I loved monarch butterflies. I knew mink were something that were terribly interesting. And cackling rooster pheasants.”
That early exposure to the outdoors led Zentner to a lifetime of hunting, fishing and deep immersion in conservation issues.
Now 80, he took time recently to reflect on a life in the outdoors and his conservation advocacy.
During a successful career in insurance and financial planning, Zentner always found time for issues that have affected the outdoors experience of thousands of Minnesotans. He was a driving force behind the effort to pass the Minnesota’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment that generates $300 million per year for wildlife habitat, clean water, parks and the arts. He worked with others to establish Voyageurs National Park and protect wilderness values in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He served on the board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency at a time when the Reserve Mining controversy was raging.
Under Gov. Rudy Perpich, he served on a coalition that led to the creation of the Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) Program, which pays landowners for voluntarily converting marginal croplands to wildlife habitat. He served as national president of the Izaak Walton League of America in 1976 and 1977.
“He’s a living conservation legend, a strong mentor and an inspirational role model,” said Martha Minchak, a Department of Natural Resources assistant area wildlife manager in Duluth. “The state of Minnesota is richer for having Dave Zentner’s care and attention for so many years.”
Duluth’s Darrell Spencer has worked with Zentner on conservation issues and considers him a mentor.
“The number one thing about that impresses me about Dave is that he’s so balanced,” Spencer said. “He can be extremely passionate about issues — even more so now that he’s older — but he can drop everything and go fishing and act like a 4-year-old.”
Zentner has always made time for fly-fishing Wisconsin’s Brule and other rivers, and hunting upland birds and ducks in the Dakotas and Saskatchewan. He makes annual trips with lifelong friends and sometimes goes solo. He takes a family fishing trip to Lake of the Woods every summer.
“Working on conservation projects takes a ton of energy,” he said. “I’ve watched a lot of people burn out. I keep perspective and my sense of humor and re-energize by pushing myself several times a week to just leave everything and be by myself or with someone I’m close to. The dogs are perfect. Walks are perfect. The Brule is a regular place for me to walk along in summer, winter, fall, spring. I can solve all the problems out there by myself.”
While balancing other aspects of his life, Zentner manages to find time to attend numerous University of Minnesota Duluth athletic events of all kinds. A UMD graduate himself, he has always been passionate about the Bulldogs.
“If UMD had a card game, I’d probably show up,” he once joked.
He has received an honorary doctorate from the school, as he has from Northland College in Ashland, where he has served on the college’s board for many years.
Choosing his path
During his childhood, Zentner’s family moved from South Dakota to Rice Lake, Wis., to Clinton, Iowa, and eventually to Duluth. He had gotten a taste of conservation as a teen in Iowa, where his parents were active in a chapter of the Izaak Walton League. He loved taking quizzes about wildlife at chapter meetings. He recalls riding in the back seat of a conservation officer’s single-engine plane, dumping corn out the door to help pheasants through a tough winter.
It was along the Mississippi River in Iowa where, as a young duck hunter in a 14-foot boat, he remembers confronting a developer who wanted to build a steel plant along the river.
“I remember him saying, ‘There’s nothing down here but crows and snakes,’ ” Zentner said. “I told him, ‘You have to be blind.’ That was sort of an indication of where I was headed.”
Zentner’s manner grew less confrontational over the years, but his convictions only deepened.
He and his wife, Margo, married after his junior year at UMD. Zentner knew he wanted to be an independent business person after graduating because it would give him the freedom to get involved in conservation issues.
“I wanted to own it, whether it was a peanut stand or whatever,” he said. “I didn’t want to get trapped into the politics of not being able to express myself.”
Finding middle ground
The insurance and financial planning business allowed him to do that, and he plunged in, rejuvenating Duluth’s Izaak Walton League chapter. He was a natural leader, said Rich Staffon of Cloquet, a former DNR area wildlife manager and now president of the Duluth Ikes chapter.
“Certain people, when they speak, have a charisma that makes you listen,” Staffon said. “He has that when he talks.”
And Zentner relates well to people, Staffon said.
“He was a businessman, an insurance salesman,” he said. “He comes at it from the view of an average person. He doesn’t come from a scientific background. He can speak for the general public in a way others can’t.”
One of Zentner’s leadership skills has been his ability to find middle ground on issues, even among those who on the surface seem to hold divergent views.
“He’s the best that I’ve seen,” Duluth’s Spencer said. “He’s the best conservationist or environmentalist I’ve seen who can be bipartisan and open-minded and find common ground. He’s steadfast, but he’ll still try to find the middle of the road and find a compromise. He would have been a great politician.”
“He understands the incremental approach — you get what you can and move ahead from there,” Staffon said.
Zentner came out of college a Republican who believed strongly in states’ rights, local decision-making and private enterprise.
“I’m no longer a Republican, but that experience left me believing that neither party has all the answers, and there are good people to be found everywhere. Nonpartisan conservation is very attractive to me,” he said.
Zentner was chosen to serve on a statewide coalition by Gov. Perpich in the 1980s. The governor’s goal was to draw more people to Minnesota based on its hunting, fishing and outdoor opportunities. Early on as the coalition met, though, Zentner felt conflicted about the group’s assignment.
“Everyone was looking at their shoes,” Zentner recalled. “I was the guy at the table who said, ‘I’m not here to exploit our natural resources. I’m here to restore our natural resources.’ Around the table, people said, ‘So am I. So am I.’
“So, we went to the governor and told him our story. He said, ‘Thank you very much. Do what you have to do.’ ”
Out of that coalition grew the state’s Reinvest in Minnesota Program, which has created thousands of acres of wildlife habitat on private lands.
That experience was transformative to Zentner and would serve him well in roles dealing the Boundary Waters, Native American treaty rights and other issues.
“I began to work on getting out of win-lose boxes,” he said, “and trying to get people together to say, ‘We don’t have to agree on everything but my suspicion deeply moves me to believe that you and I do agree on 70 to 80 percent of this. So why don’t we spend 80 to 90 percent of our time on that 80 percent?’”
Minchak has watched Zentner in such situations.
“He genuinely likes people and enjoys interacting with them and sharing his vast experience,” Minchak said. “People recognize this and open up to him.”
‘A little arrogant’
While still deeply committed to conservation issues, Zentner is trying to pass leadership roles on to others. He is concerned, though, about the direction of the conservation and environmental movements today.
“The Izaak Walton League strategic plan … is to make conservation a way of life for every citizen. We (have) failed, in spite of our heroes, in spite of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act. … We have not reached the man and woman on the street. We have done the reverse in many ways,” he said. “All of our success in the ’80s, in some ways, has made us a little arrogant, too piped into big government, too piped into top-down.”
He prefers the bottom-up approach, neighbor to neighbor, to tackle today’s conservation issues — such as a warming climate and the world’s burgeoning population.
“I think I’m right that we start with our neighbors,” Zentner said. “We don’t start with the U.N. We don’t start with U.S. Senate. If all politics are local, then we go back to the old ways — from pre- and post-World War II. We go to the PTA. We talk to our neighbors and try to understand them.”
Dave Zentner awards
1992 — Izaak Walton League 54 Founders Award
1988 — Sigurd F. Olson Award, Minnesota Division, Izaak Walton League
1998 — Outdoor Life 100th Anniversary Citizen Conservationist of the Year
2003 — Honorary Doctor of Law Degree, University of Minnesota
2007 — Honorary Doctor of Public Service Degree, Northland College, Ashland
2011 — Minnesota Award, Minnesota Chapter of the Wildlife Society
2012 — St. Louis River Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award
2013 — Outdoor News Conservationist of the Year
Dave Zentner leadership roles
1960s to present — Advocate for Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Late 1960s to mid-1970s — Campaigned for creation of Voyageurs National Park
1974-79 — Minnesota Pollution Control Agency board member
1976-77 — National president of Izaak Walton League of America
Mid-1980s — Member of Minnesota Commission on Hunting and Fishing under Gov. Rudy Perpich (led to formation of Reinvest in Minnesota Program)
2005 — Chaired first Rally for Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water at Minnesota Capitol
2006 — Co-chaired second Rally for Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water at Minnesota Capitol
2006 — Co-chaired task force under Gov. Tim Pawlenty that led to reforming the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources to become the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources
2007-08 — Campaigned for Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment passed by Minnesotans in November 2008