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First woman appointed as Mille Lacs DNR commissioner

Susan Klapel practically grew up in the state parks across Minnesota.

It’s only fitting that she’d find a career that encompasses all of her early life lessons.

Klapel was recently appointed commissioner of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

She’s the department’s first female commissioner, as well as the first female to head a tribal Natural Resources Division in the state, band leaders say.

“It’s empowering that I can be someone that people look up to,” Klapel said. “Young girls who, like when I was growing up, don’t think the DNR is a place for girls. I hope I’m a role model to show that it is.”

While being that role model is an honor for Klapel, it’s not why she took the new post.

Instead, it’s to connect the tribal community with its leaders.

She wants to show the community what programs are available to them, as well as get the people more involved with the department’s work.

As commissioner, Klapel will oversee tribal conservation efforts and manage the band’s hunting, fishing and harvesting activities.

Her department will work together with the Minnesota DNR and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC).

Klapel says she’ll spend her first few months in the position talking to the community to find out what they want. That could be programs, classes or bigger picture items, like the future visions for the land, she said.

To fully gather input, she’s forming an advisory board, made up of band member volunteers.

“I want to know what’s important to band members, to see what projects they might want done,” she said. “I can’t think of everything. Listening is going to be the best way to see what the community wants.”

Eventually, Klapel will pull together a youth advisory board as well.

She knows there will be challenges in her new position.

“The decisions I make now will effect my kids and grandkids,” she said. “There is a lot of pressure there, but this department has a fabulous staff already.”

Some of the biggest issues that Klapel has her eyes set on first include:

• Cleaning properties: Tear down abandoned or failing structures (like barns and old wells), and restore it back to the natural state.

• Clean lead (like in old paint) out of the area to prevent it getting into ground water.

• Mille Lacs Lake: Continue work with the Minnesota DNR in issues like climate change and invasive species.

It’s her background that will help her be successful, Klapel said.

She first started out as an administrative assistant in the band’s police department in 1997. She soon became an intern for the DNR.

At the same time, Klapel attended Central Lakes College, where she earned her Associate of Arts Degree in Law Enforcement.

That’s when she started as a conservation officer for the band.

Later, she moved to the gaming regulatory authority, where she worked as an investigator on internal and external theft, compliance and surveillance.

Although her new position of commissioner is quite different than her previous posts, Klapel says it’s her passion that will make her successful.

“I have a connection, a joy of being outside,” she said. “Everything we need to know is in nature. Things need each other to live. It’s a cycle. Sometimes it’s a matter of making those connections to succeed.”

That is where Klapel comes in.

JESSIE PERRINE may be reached at or 855-5859. Follow me on Twitter at