By Shawn Perich
Minnesota’s environmental health just had a check-up. The results, contained in the recently released Minnesota Environment and Energy Report Card, show some good results and some not-so-good ones, too.
The Report Card was compiled by the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) per an executive order from Gov. Mark Dayton. It is part of an effort by the Dayton Administration to refocus and revitalize the EQB, which diminished during the Ventura and Pawlenty Administrations. With members including nine state agency heads and five citizens, the EQB was created through statute in the 1970s and is intended to lead state environmental policy and strategic planning.
The last environmental report card was released in 1994 under Gov. Arne Carlson. The new report looks at indicators and measurements within the broad categories of water, land, air, energy and climate. Some indicators show dramatic improvements. We have less air pollution from power plants and industries, better community wastewater treatment and more monitoring of water quality in our waterways. We’ve also created a substantial funding source for conservation and the environment with the Legacy Amendment to the state constitution.
Unfortunately, our environmental progress is challenged by climate change, poor land use and drainage practices, and more development. Populations of several common wildlife species are in decline, including mallards, moose, spring peepers, pine martens, pheasants and prairie chickens. In our inland lakes, populations of cisco, a common forage fish, have declined 42 percent since 1975.
These startling declines in fish and wildlife abundance underscore why hunters and anglers should become involved in another aspect of Governor Dayton’s executive order, the Minnesota Energy and Environmental Congress planned to convene in the Twin Cities in March. The Congress is intended to chart a course for addressing the state’s environmental challenges. The last environmental congress occurred in 1994.
Former state senator Ellen Anderson, now senior advisor to the Governor on energy and the environment, says forums are being held around the state in December to solicit the views of organizations and ordinary citizens about environmental issues. The forums have attracted unexpected high attendance. The first three forums, where organizers expected about 100 participants at each event, attracted over 900 attendees.
“We’re trying to invite everyone and anyone with something to say about the environmental quality in their life to share their views,” Anderson said.
So what are people saying? Not surprisingly, Anderson says environmental concerns vary by region, ranging from agricultural issues in the west to copper mining issues in the northeast and silica sand mining in the southeast. Views on those issues vary as well, reflecting the broad cross-section of interests that were invited to participate in the process.
“The amount of information we’ve received has been overwhelming,” Anderson said.
The issues of concern reflect social and economic changes which have occurred during the past decade or so. For instance, improving local food production was not a mainstream concern 10 years ago. Copper and silica sand mining weren’t on the public radar screen. During that time frame, we’ve had record-breaking hot spells and weather events. Energy use and the development of so-called clean energy have moved to the forefront. Yet, Anderson points out that many environmental or conservation challenges are not new. While substantial progress has been made, we continue to seek better agricultural and land use practices in order to our lands, waters and wildlife.
The rub comes in how state government uses the information it receives from the forums to establish environmental priorities. Politicians and bureaucrats have a penchant for emphasizing new, shiny and often politically volatile issues (invasive species and copper mining come to mind), perhaps at the expense of meat-and-potatoes conservation like habitat protection. While issues are often intertwined, it remains important not to lose focus on the basics, such as maintaining abundant wildlife populations. It’s all a matter of balancing priorities, because funding from the Legacy Act and other sources provide the financial resources necessary to address land and water conservation issues on multiple fronts.
All of this is important to hunters and anglers, because fish and wildlife resources are dependent upon a healthy environment. It ought to be a wake-up call when the environmental report card shows common critters like mallards, moose and ciscoes are declining. As goes the abundance of fish and wildlife, so goes the quality of our hunting and fishing.
Hunters and anglers also have a leg up on mainstream Minnesotans when it comes to understanding the links between environmental issues and our everyday world. We’re the ones who know how ditching and tiling in farm country eliminates wetlands, as well as the ducks and other wildlife that depend on wetland habitat. We know what it is like to catch fish containing mercury or other contaminants that make them unsafe for kids and young women to eat. Many of us are acutely aware of the later freeze-ups and earlier ice-outs resulting from climate change. But not enough of us step forward and demand action to address the underlying issues.
Right now, we have an easy way to do so. If you were unable to attend a regional forum, public views are also being solicited through an online forum. You can find it by searching for the Minnesota Environmental Congress website, www.mn.gov/EnvironmentalCongress. On the site, click Your Voice to find a four-question survey asking what you consider to be the environmental issues affecting you and what you think are potential solutions. While there are likely to be lots of mainstream responses addressing topics like energy, mining or climate change, it is really up to hunters and anglers to point out the fish- and wildlife-related problems associated with the loss of CRP grasslands, shoreline development, wetland drainage and other issues.
Minnesota’s once-proud tradition of environmentalism was pushed to the wayside by politics and economic woes during the past decade. Governor Dayton deserves some credit for providing Minnesotans with a way to move environmental issues back into the mainstream. Hunters and anglers ought to take the Governor up on his offer. After all, doing so is in their best interest.