Group wants Minnesotans to think about how to protect natural resources for future

An amount of farmland equal to the Mall of America disappears daily in Minnesota, converted to development. At that pace, by 2030, a land mass more than half the size of Beltrami County will be lost to development.

An amount of farmland equal to the Mall of America disappears daily in Minnesota, converted to development. At that pace, by 2030, a land mass more than half the size of Beltrami County will be lost to development.

What's a Minnesotan to do?

"That developed land will convert farmland and natural areas, and it will close off any public access that had been available to those acres," says John Curry, director of the Minnesota Campaign for Conservation.

Curry, and a collaboration of individuals who belong to most of Minnesota's conservation, environmental and sportsmen's groups, want Minnesotans to start thinking now about how to protect Minnesota's precious natural resources for future generations. Not only that, but also to preserve a sustainable economy from tourism and forestry, which also need strong Minnesota resources.

"This is a collaboration of anybody who has an interest in the outdoors," Curry said in an interview earlier this week. "Most of these folks have a history over the past half decade of doing very poorly at the State Capitol or with county governments and watershed districts."


In fact, Minnesota now spends just 1.1 percent of its general budget on conservation, and conservation funding dropped 47 percent in the past five years to historic lows.

"When the budget is squeezed, one of the things that they can cut, because it's not health care or education where there is direct votes tied to it, are dollars that go to conservation," Curry said.

Behind the efforts of Minneapolis businessman David Hartwell, a group of environment and conservation-minded business associates a year ago were asked to pony up for a major study of development trends and their impact on Minnesota's natural resources.

The result is a slick, 50-page report, "Minnesota Calling: Conservation Facts, Trends and Challenges," that the newly formed Minnesota Campaign for Conservation wants to get into each Minnesotan's hands over the next year.

The end result, says Curry, is twofold: to get Minnesotans to think about long-range plans to protect and preserve Minnesota resources and to gin up legislative support for conservation measures and funding.

"Can we work together to again to begin dreaming big?" asks Curry, noting that it was Minnesotans like Mary Gibbs who had vision in the past, defending Minnesota's first state park, Itasca, from being logged over in 1903.

"Can we look for a long-term vision for the state of Minnesota and go to the voters and ask them to approve some of these great visions that we have?" Curry asks.

The report notes some disturbing trends by taking existing research, he said. The report attempts to compile a wealth of research already available, and draw some conclusions. Among the findings:


-- Minnesota is the fastest growing state in the Midwest, adding 1 million people from 1970 to 2000 and expecting to add another 1.2 million by 2030.

-- Because of smaller household sizes and increasing acres consumed per household, more than 1 million acres will be converted from natural areas and farmland to development in 25 years -- an area equal to Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota and Carver counties.

-- Less than 1 percent of native prairie remains.

-- Forty-two percent of Minnesota's original wetlands are gone, with prairie wetland loss at 99 percent in southwestern Minnesota.

-- Some 40 percent of Minnesota's lakes and rivers are polluted or impaired.

-- Half of the original forest acreage was lost in the last century, and now subdivision threatens more.

-- A quarter of the state's wildlife species are threatened by habitat loss and pollution and 10 percent of the state's plant species are endangered or threatened.

If the trends continue, not only will Minnesotans lose their natural resources, but also the economy that is supported by them, Curry said. The outdoor recreation industry -- fishing, hunting and wildlife watching -- generates 70,000 jobs and $4.2 billion annually to the state gross product.


But also, he said, farming, forestry and fishing account for 97,000 jobs and $4.3 billion annually. The travel and tourism accounts for $9.2 billion a year.

The report, however, delineates what it calls the six most disturbing trends, which include the continuing loss of wetlands, increasing development of lakeshore especially on shallow lakes, declining water quality in lakes and rivers, fragmentation of forests and prairies, invasive species which threaten water bodies and wildlife, and development encircling and isolating public recreation lands.

Minnesotans need to plan carefully for the future, Curry said, to ensure that the trends are reversed and conservation-minded policy returns. But, he cautions, that doesn't mean a single comprehensive plan for the state.

Rather, the conservation plan is recommending that local decisions be made for resource protection, following 14 defined ecological zones as established by the state Department of Natural Resources. Some areas won't change, he said, such as the Red River Valley is a rich farm area and should remain so.

Curry lauded Bemidji area efforts already underway, such as the Beltrami County Board's refiguring of natural environmental lake classifications to ensure safe development along shallow lakes, and "Bemidji Leads!" efforts to plant 10,000 trees a year for 10 years.

"We want 50 year visions -- where do we want the parkland to be, what kind of trail opportunities do we want, where should develop occur with an expanding population, what kind of habitat do we want for wildlife species," Curry said.

Right now, nobody is at the switch, he said, as to what Minnesota will look like in 50 years.

Such planning becomes important as Minnesota grows with new residents to the state, a younger generation which uses technology to connect to their jobs while living where they want -- where there's lakes and trees, Curry said.


"They're all very young, they are very mobile -- these people chose where they want to live," he said of the new workers coming to Minnesota. State companies such as 3M and Best Buy are even using Minnesota's quality of life to attract those workers. "Industries that need to recruit these knowledge workers had better be located somewhere where natural resources are abundant and critical, because that's what these knowledge workers are looking for."

Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, a leader in a newly formed House DFL Conservation Caucus, called the Minnesota Campaign for Conservation's effort important to raising awareness of the issue.

"This confirms what many of us have known all along. Our natural resources are being fragmented and developed at an unsustainable rate." Moe said of the report.

"We in north central Minnesota in particular have a great deal to lose if we don't act now," he said. "Outdoor activities, fishing, hunting, skiing, snowmobiling, canoeing all are a way of life for us up here. Not only that but the tourism that is large part of our economy is dependent upon others being able to do these things when they come up to our neck of the woods."

That there is a growing coalition of hunting, fishing, environmental and other citizen groups working for a comprehensive clean water plan is good news, he said.

Moe is an author of the True Clean Water Legacy Act which would use State Lottery proceeds for conservation and water quality programs. Other legislation would dedicate portion of the state sales tax to wildlife habitat.

"We aren't out of the woods though," Moe said. "The Legislature and governor need to hear from our constituents that these things are important to them. We need to know that funding for natural resources and recreation are important enough to be in the mix with education, health care and transportation."

Curry credited both Moe and state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, as important voices for conservation.


"Frank Moe and Carrie Ruud are in opposite parties, but they are both folks that are highly thought of in the conservation community," Curry said.

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