Paul Austin

Paul Austin is the director of Conservation Minnesota, a statewide non-profit. In that role, he gets to hear and share Minnesotan’s stories about our lakes, lands and way of life. Paul’s past lives include election as a small town mayor, serving at the US Agency for International Development, and managing a small marketing firm. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, two small children and one very large dog.

Is the yellow-bellied sapsucker destined to be our new state bird?

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: September 16, 2014 - 11:31 AM

Imagine a scenario in which Minnesota legislators were forced to change the Minnesota state bird from the Common Loon to the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Seem far-fetched?

Perhaps.  But if a recent study conducted by the Audubon Society is to be believed, there stands a chance that Minnesota will find itself in the market for a new state bird if evolving changes in the climate continue at the current pace.

Using three decades of data compiled and analyzed by their scientists, the Audubon report, which can be found at, tracks the winter and summer ranges of 588 breeds of birds. It identifies climactic suitability ranges for each bird, and then maps how those ranges will shift based on current scientific understanding.  The most concerning of the findings was that 314 of the birds studied will see at least half of their current ranges changed by century’s end. 

And that list includes the Common Loon which will see its summer range shift north into Canada almost completely by 2050.  By 2080, there will be little to no trace of the state bird found anywhere within our borders during the summer months.  I say summer months, because the winter range for the loon, which is currently in the region around the Gulf of Mexico, will also start shifting north, and .  By 2080 Loons that once summered in the north woods and wintered along the Gulf Coast may find themselves spending summers in Canada, and winters in northern Iowa and extreme southern Minnesota.

And yes, the yellow-bellied sapsucker may soon be a staple of Minnesota birder's checklists, as it should have a statewide reach, at least in the winters, by decade's end.   

The problem of changing bird habitats obviously doesn't just affect Minnesota.  The country may also be in need of a new national bird if the trends continue. Removed from the endangered species list only seven years ago, the bald eagle is facing a loss of 73 percent of its current breeding range by 2080. 

But before we take the advice of Benjamin Franklin and switch to the wild turkey as our national symbol, lets recognize that the report estimates the wild turkey is in more jeopardy that even the bald eagle.  The study suggests that the wild turkey will lose 87 percent of its current winter range by 2080. 

Animated maps show how the habitats for the birds studied are expected to change between the years 2000, 2020, 2050 and 2080. The consistent view across all species is a northward shift of both the summer and winter ranges of all birds studied. 

While the topic of climate change remains charged, more so in the political than in the scientific arena, this first-of-its-kind study deserves commendation and more importantly, our immediate attention.  

Time For A New Minnesota Miracle

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: August 15, 2014 - 9:26 AM

Forty one years ago this week, Time Magazine placed a picture of Minnesota Governor Wendell Anderson on the cover holding a Northern Pike and declaring that the good life had been found in Minnesota. 

This article described what has become known as the Minnesota Miracle, a revolution in the state’s policy and political landscape that ushered in an era of state prosperity.

Could Minnesota be on the verge of providing a second act to the Minnesota Miracle? 

Recent articles in the New York Times and other publications have pointed at Minnesota’s nation-leading efforts to shrink the state’s carbon footprint through expanded use of renewable energy sources.

Currently Minnesota gets more of its electricity from wind power than all but four other states.  And from its peak in 2003, the state has slashed the amount of coal burned in its power plants by nearly one-third. 

How did this happen?

The legislature has helped, by setting aggressive carbon reduction goals and providing incentives for public utilities to reach them. But where the similarities between the Minnesota Miracle and the current carbon curbing efforts are the greatest is in the desire by all parties involved to be part of the ultimate solution.    

Utilities are finding that while state and federal subsidies for wind and solar were important to get these industries off the ground, the costs are now low enough that they are beating traditional energy production costs and likely would continue to without being subsidized.  While the fluctuation of coal and natural gas prices cause similar fluctuations in the cost of electricity produced by these sources, solar and wind power generation have a much more stable fixed cost.

Which brings us to another interesting front in this debate. Recently Governor Mark Dayton said that he wanted to see the state kick its coal-powered electricity habit altogether. 

Making his comments at the state’s first Clean Energy Economy Summit in July, Dayton challenged the leaders in the room to come up with ways to wean the state off of coal. 

"Tell us what a timeline would look like, what has to happen for that timeline to be met and what kind of incentives or inducements do we need to provide to make that happen," the Governor said. 

Minnesota is already on an impressive trajectory when it comes to renewable energy use. Were the state to find a way to eliminate its current reliance on coal from its energy production equation, it is fair to believe that the nation would stand up and take notice of the second coming of the Minnesota Miracle.   

Vikings Hometown Pride Is For The Birds

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: July 29, 2014 - 8:03 PM

Minnesota sports fans love their homegrown talent. 

It was a no-brainer when the Twins drafted Joe Mauer first overall in the 2001 draft.  And when Lindsay Whalen decided to come back home to play for the Lynx, she brought back hope and with that hope came championships. 

Even when they may struggle (I’m looking at you, Joe), the fans will always hold a special reverence for a hometown kid who plays for the hometown team. 

And this is why I am so baffled by the debate over the glass in the new Vikings Stadium. 

While to some, it will seem like the age-old story of a big bad business refusing to buckle to the desires of the tree hugging environmental group. 

And in some ways it is.  But in many others, it isn’t.

The folks at the Audubon Society correctly point out that nearly half of North America's bird species, and about 40 percent of its waterfowl, spend at least part of their lives in the Mississippi river flyway. That flyway generally follows the Mississippi river in the United States and the Mackenzie river in Canada. Being a mile off this avian superhighway makes the giant glass facade of the new stadium a legitimate risk to the birds of North America. 

And the team is right.  Every time they turn around, the cost of the stadium seems to increase.  They are currently inching toward the $1 billion barrier, and construction has hardly even started. Eventually you have to draw the line somewhere. There is a lot of glass in this stadium, so glazing the windows to make them less of a threat to birds would cost around $1 million. 

And that is where hometown pride comes in. 

The contractor that is providing the glass for the stadium, Viracon, is an Owatonna based company. While they certainly are great at providing clear glass, they also work in the more bird-safe glass as well.  One need only look at the new Central Library in Minneapolis to see an example of their work with glass that is glazed to prevent bird strikes. 

So, the Vikings have two real options.  They can draw the line in the sand, and hope that the risk the building poses to birds is not as serious as expected. Or they can increase their partnership with a Minnesota company to provide a stadium of which everyone can truly be proud.  

A Man, His Dogs, and Minnesota’s Future

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: July 23, 2014 - 10:56 PM

As the Executive Director of Conservation Minnesota, I have had the opportunity to work with dog sled musher, former state legislator and former board member of Conservation Minnesota, Frank Moe.  Dave Dempsey wrote a review of Frank’s new book Sled Dogs to Saint Paul and I wanted to share it with you. 

By Dave Dempsey

Once in a while, a book comes along that speaks from Minnesota’s heart and helps us understand why we care so much about protecting our homeland.

This year, that book is Sled Dogs to Saint Paul, authored by Frank Moe.  It’s the story of a man from northern Minnesota who becomes enchanted with the world of sled dogs and the gorgeous wilds in which they race.  The book is no environmental manifesto but does link the sense of place that comes from living amidst the north’s beauty with the imperative to stop destructive mining proposals.

A longtime resident of Minnesota’s north, Moe is a former two-term member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, where he championed conservation.  He is a candidate for the job of Cook County Commissioner.

In Sled Dogs to Saint Paul, the 48-year-old Moe is passionate about his canines.  “Our dogs are so dear to both my wife Sherri and I,” the author says.  “They’ve become the focus of our lives.  Talking or writing about the dogs is to talk about my life, my feelings and history.  The dogs are how I experience the world most of the time now.”

Moe says his relationship with the dogs is more than a window into the wild, it's a window to the world.  “Having 40 sled dogs dictates where we live, what I do with most of my time.  My father-in-law raises cattle.  He will only come visit us for a day or two at a time.  He says he worries about the cows when he's away and is only really happy when he's on the farm with them.  When we got sled dogs I came to understand what he means.”

The climax of the book takes place in 2012, a 362-mile journey by sled and dogs from Grand Marais to the State Capitol to dramatize the threat of sulfide mining.  Braving unusually warm winter conditions but bolstered by the encouragement of fellow Minnesotans, Moe is persistent, presenting 13,000 petition signatures opposing sulfide mining to a reluctant Governor Dayton.  Many more people are ready to sign petitions and pitch in to protect Minnesota from sulfide mining, says Moe, “when they’re presented with all the information about sulfide mining, who really benefits and what the cost will be for us, polluted water and the cost of having to clean up the mess, literally forever.”

He believes the trip to St. Paul galvanized supporters of sustainable northern Minnesota communities, changing the conversation from "how can we protect our water from the worst of this sulfide mining pollution?” to “we can stop it."  

He acknowledges the need for jobs in northern communities but says destructive sulfide mining is not the answer. “Communities that have depended for generations on the boom-and-bust cycle of mining will only grow sustainably when they diversify their economies.  Those of us on the North Shore, who are mostly dependent upon tourism and recreation for our economies, only stand to lose if sulfide mining becomes a reality in Minnesota.”

Right now Moe’s thoughts often turn to the next winter season of racing. “Our dogs are lounging the summer away under the trees.  Fall training will begin in September and then we'll begin training for next winter's races.  We'll be running the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon again along with a few others in the region.”

Moe’s dogs have joined him in parades and campaign events around the county.  “I end up talking more about the dogs than politics, which I don't mind at all,” he says.

The book is available at:

Quotes from book:

“Most people who celebrate the summer solstice are happy that it signifies the formal beginning of summer, the longest day of the year;  another two months or more of warm, mostly sunny days.  For me the solstice means the countdown to winter, halfway from the last snow to the next.”

“What I had envisioned being a rally against sulfide mining had become something far greater;  a celebration of our home, Lake Superior and the lakes, forests and rivers that surrounded its shore.”

Healthy Jobs for a Healthy Economy

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: July 15, 2014 - 11:53 AM

This blog was writen by Kathleen Schuler, Healthy Kids And Families Program Director at Conservation Minnesota and Co-Director of Healthy Legacy. I thought the information was worth sharing.

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) recently approved a $21.2 million loan to Segetis, a green chemistry company, to build a $106 million plant in Hoyt Lakes, MN. This investment will pay off in new economic development, including new jobs in an area of the state sorely in need of such a boost.

Segetis is a Golden Valley based company that makes bio-based alternatives to petrochemicals to meet a variety of consumer product needs. They produce levulinic acid, made from corn sugars, which can be used in a variety of applications, including polymers, polyols, plasticizers, surfactants and formulation aids.  Segetis technologies employ inherently safer chemistry to protect human health and our environment throughout the product life cycle. If you have purchased products made by Seventh Generation or Method, you likely could be using chemicals made by Segetis.

This new plant will enable Segetis to ramp up manufacturing capacity and grow their company, which will benefit the growing number of consumers interested in less toxic cleaning and personal care products. The choice to locate their new plant in Northern Minnesota’s forest rich region will facilitate Segetis’ transition to forest products feedstock by 2018. Once open in 2015, the plant is expected to have a direct economic impact of $55 million per year on the region and will initially create 55 new jobs and support 545 jobs in related industries, according to a study by the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality. These new living-wage jobs will range from warehouse workers and support staff, earning $33,000 to $45,000 a year, while management jobs will pay $80,000-130,000 a year. (

“Segetis is on the leading edge of the biochemical economy and will add value to our timber and forest products economy,” said IRRRB Commissioner Tony Sertich. “This innovative company’s presence in our region will help position the Iron Range as a national leader in the biochemical economy.” 

New Jobs without the Risk

The new Segetis plant will benefit Northeast Minnesota through economic development and new jobs. It will provide additional environmental and health benefits through creating safer chemicals and safer products for consumers, workers and the broader community. In contrast, proposals to create jobs through an industry that’s new to Minnesota, known as sulfide mining carry risks to the environment and to human health. This new type of mining in Minnesota is vastly different from taconite mining we are familiar with and carries new risks. For example, PolyMet projects that their proposal would create 300 to 360 jobs for the 20 year life of the mine. The 2009 draft Environmental Impact Statement for PolyMet stated that 25% of these jobs would go to local people, and the rest would go to long-distance commuters or relocated workers. That means that somewhere around 90 local residents might be employed at PolyMet if it opened. ( And these jobs come at significant costs to our state, including mercury pollution to our waters, destruction of moose and lynx habitat, risks to Minnesota taxpayers, damage to wild rice waters and production, wetland devastation, increased carbon dioxide emissions and at least 500 years of treating pollution to our waters. In addition, as of yet, no health impact assessment has been done to determine the extent of risks to human health from exposure to mercury, asbestos-like fibers and increased vehicle traffic. (

While we all support job growth throughout Northeast Minnesota, policymakers and citizens should look long and hard at the type of jobs we create and the costs or benefits all of us will be seeing down the road. We applaud the IRRRB’s work to bring Segetis to Northeast Minnesota. This innovative company will provide sustainable, long-term, living wage jobs while not risking our health.

The Fight For Independence (from aquatic invasive species)

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: July 1, 2014 - 9:15 AM

Earlier this week, a press release from the Department of Natural Resources hit my desk.  A shell collector walking along the south shore of Lake Melissa just south of Detroit Lakes had found evidence of zebra mussels.  Despite the fact that the Detroit Lakes area had made it this far without any evidence of zebra mussels, a quick investigation by the DNR confirmed that the invasive species has sadly taken root there. 

For those who are unaware, zebra mussels were first identified in Russia in the later part of the 1700s, but by hitching rides in the ballast water of commercial shipping vessels, they have made their way around the globe.  And unlike in Europe where there are a few natural predators for the mussels, in North America, there are none to keep their spread in check. 

A female zebra mussel can produce a half million eggs a year, so their spread has become problematic wherever they have been found.  While their ability to filter pollution out of water would be laudable if done in balance with the lake, they have a tendency to clean water so effectively that forage for other aquatic species is diminished and soon, with light reaching deeper in the lake, weeds begin to take over. 

I checked out the link to the DNR website on the bottom of the release for more info.  When I navigated to the link for the list of infested waters, I found a seventeen-page spreadsheet that listed lakes from every corner of the state.  Some had zebra mussels, others had Eurasian milfoil, spiny water fleas, flowering rush and some had a combination of all of the above. 

It served as a good reminder.  If your Independence Day weekend plans include any time out on a boat, take a quick minute to check out the DNR’s list of infested waters.  

Even if the lake you are on is not on the list, still take extra caution to make sure you clean all aquatic plants and animals from your boat and trailer before leaving the access.  Also, it is now illegal to travel with the drain plug in your boat, so make sure to pull it when you come off the lake and if you have one, you also must drain your live well before pulling away.  If you are transporting bait, the law says you must drain any remaining lake water from your bait bucket and refill with tap or bottled water if you plan to move to another lake with the bait bucket. 

The rules are basic. The less water, plant and animal life we move between lakes, the lower our risk of jeopardizing the health of the lakes we love. 


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