By Shawn Perich
My father had a saying. Actually, he had a few sayings, some of which were not fit to print. But this saying was one he often repeated when he was frustrated with truck traffic on the highway.
“They never should have got rid of the railroads,” Dad would say. “Dumbest thing this country ever did was tearing up the rail lines.”
No doubt Dad would feel somewhat vindicated by the news of the day. Due to the oil industry’s rapid expansion of the Bakken old field in North Dakota, which now produces a million barrels a day, rail service for other industries is not keeping up with demand.
Farmers, about to harvest a bumper crop of corn and soybeans, complain their storage bins are still filled with grain from last year. In northeastern Minnesota, the local utility, Minnesota Power, is idling four of its generating units to save its stockpiles of coal for winter. The company’s vice president of strategy and planning, Al Rudnek, told the Duluth News-Tribune last week the situation is the worst he’s seen in his 18 years with the utility, because it is taking two to three times longer to get coal shipped from Montana and Wyoming. The utility’s stockpiles are less than half of what they should be.
On the Iron Range, mining companies are stockpiling taconite pellets, because there aren’t enough trains to make the short haul from the Range down to the docks in Duluth, where lake freighters pick up the pellets from delivery to steel mills on the Lower Great Lakes. Two companies are hauling taconite to Duluth by truck, which is unprecedented. If the taconite stockpiled on the Range doesn’t it make it to Duluth before the shipping season closes for the winter, the mills won’t have enough raw material to last until spring.
All of this may lead one to ask, “How did we get into such a fine mess?”
The answer, of course, is that the mess is entirely of our doing. Our insatiable demand for energy, coupled with a national urge to ramp up domestic production, has created a situation where we are producing so much of the raw material of energy—crude oil, coal and corn—that we don’t have an adequate transportation infrastructure to move it.
So what does this conundrum have to do with the outdoors? Actually, more than you may think. This fall’s hunting prospects are the poorest they’ve been since the 1980s. Populations of some game species, such as deer and pheasants, are the lowest they’ve been in over 25 years. While we’ve heard all sorts of ballyhoo about a supposed “record flight” of waterfowl this fall, a little deeper analysis reveals that the Dakotas now produce more ducks than the vast Canadian prairies. And grasslands in the Dakotas are being plowed up to plant more corn. For ducks, the population crash is coming soon.
Whether you are growing corn for ethanol, fracking for oil or mining coal, energy extraction requires a lot of open space. Taking over that open space usually comes at the expense of wildlife populations, because another name for open space is habitat. If you take away the habitat, the critters living there don’t pack up and move. They just disappear.
Oddly, the best way to protect wildlife habitat is with politics. For decades, conservationists have worked through the political process to leave room for wildlife in farm and energy policies. Playing politics for fish and wildlife has never been easy, but these days it seems to have become nearly impossible. Apparently, politicians just don’t give a damn about deer and ducks anymore.
This is interesting, because the two fellows running for Congress in the 8th District, where I live, seem to mostly be vying to determine who looks the cutest in camouflage. Mailings and television ads have deluged the district’s voters with images of the respective candidates clothed in camouflage and hunter orange and toting shotguns and rifles. I guess some political analyst in Washington or New York figures the best way to win votes in the Arrowhead is to pose your candidate as a hunter.
Sorry, but here’s one voter who ain’t buying the hype. I don’t really care if Candidate Red likes to hang out at the hunting shack or if Candidate Blue occasionally hunkers in a duck blind. It takes more than a camouflaged photo op to gain my vote. Instead, show me you have a hunter’s soul.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if a candidate on the stump told why he so enjoys canoeing in the Boundary Waters with his children? Can you imagine a candidate expressing concern because he’s seeing far fewer pheasants on his annual hunting trip to western Minnesota? Or how about a candidate who says he takes pride to be living in a corner of Minnesota with thriving populations of bald eagles, gray wolves and trumpeter swans, because they demonstrate the success of sound wildlife conservation?
Yes, it would be refreshing to hear from a candidate who is passionate about the conservation infrastructure that supports the 8th District’s outstanding quality of life. In fact, we should demand that passion, or at very least a deep appreciation of conservation, from our candidates. After all, the federal government is responsible for the management of some of the district’s natural gems, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageur’s National Park, the Superior National Forest, Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and the St. Croix Wild and Scenic Riverway.
Alas, those political analysts Back East don’t have a clue about those places or the passion many voters feel for them. And the fat cats who are funding both campaigns from afar have other priorities. So we are expected to swallow what they spoon-feed us—Candidate Red and Candidate Blue posing in camouflage. Funny thing, when you try to feed me with a spoon, I just spit it out. Dad raised me that way.