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 it true that #BeerSavesLakes?

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: May 1, 2015 - 7:04 PM

What would you be willing to do to help protect Minnesota’s lakes from encroaching threats like invasive aquatic species and rising levels of mercury and other pollutants?

Would you be willing to do something as simple as incorporate a new hashtag into your social media posts?

If so, Conservation Minnesota could use your help.

Due to a new partnership with Coors Light, every social media post between now and the end of the year that includes #BeerSavesLakes will earn a dollar for Conservation Minnesota’s efforts to protect the lakes we all love.  Coors Light is also donating a part of the proceeds from every case of beer sold in Minnesota for the rest of the year to us as well. 

So, simply by using the #BeerSavesLakes hashtag or buying some Coors Light beer, you can play an important role in helping support Conservation Minnesota’s ongoing efforts to:

  • Engage Minnesotans in support of legislative and other initiatives related to water quality.
  • Gather support of the Clean Water Promise that sets clear, realistic goals for our waters in the coming decades.
  • Work to support and protect funding for aquatic invasive species research and local government initiatives to combat them. 
  • Provide opportunities for those interested to combat the increasing amount of mercury in our lakes.
  • Fight aquatic invasive species like Zebra Mussles, through community detection efforts.
  • Continuing the State of Water Conference that is held every other year – next will be spring 2016.

This partnership will kick off this weekend with an event at Lord Fletchers on Lake Minnetonka between 4 and 6 on Saturday afternoon.  In addition to representatives from the two groups, Laura Schara from Minnesota Bound will be on hand to talk about AIS, and Chris Hawkey, lead singer of local favorite band Rocket Club will be there to perform for the assembled crowd. 

So, if you love Minnesota’s lakes, please tell your friends that #BeerSavesLakes.  

Proposed Minnesota conservation budget: A surplus of bad ideas

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: April 23, 2015 - 4:37 PM

Despite coming into the year with a state surplus of nearly $2 billion and the now six-year old Legacy Amendment that voters passed to ensure a stable source of funding for conservation concerns, the Minnesota Legislature is about to take another big step backwards in protecting not only the state’s environment, but also its taxpayers.  

On the top line, the currently proposed spending levels offered by the DFL-controlled Senate would see the next state budget slash $34.5 million dollars from environmental and natural resources sections of the budget.  

A big chunk of that comes in the form of taking money from a fund created to maintain 109 closed landfills around the state that require ongoing upkeep and maintenance to prevent contamination of local watersheds. The state takes responsibility of the landfills so that local municipalities and taxpayers are not left on the hook for what can be massive cleanup costs should the closed landfills begin to leak.  But following these raids, the state will have roughly half of the money it will need to cover the expected liabilities.  So, should a leak occur, as recently did in Washington County, there is a real possibility that taxpayers who have already seen their tax dollars dedicated to the account once, could be asked to pay up a second time to cover the difference.  

The House seems equally interested in raiding dedicated landfill accounts.  In addition to following the Senate’s lead in taking money from the statewide fund, they also appear destined to completely drain the Metro Landfill Contingency Action Trust Fund. This fund was created with a dedicated surcharge on metro area solid waste bills to deal with the seven metro area landfills.  This is one of the more egregious takings by the legislature, as the surcharge was collected for this very specific purpose, and yet now seems likely to be used to fund other state spending initiatives. 

The House Tax bill also includes a provision to divert funds dedicated by the Legacy Amendment to pay property taxes on natural resource land. Both the Attorney General and the Legislative Auditor have questioned the constitutionality of this use of dedicated funds.

There is only so much money to go around, and every year, tough decisions have to be made.  But in a year of surplus, and a state where the voters chose to tax themselves to make sure that the state’s legacy of natural resources protection was maintained, the legislature sure appears to be losing its way. 

Roll out the green carpet: The Environmental Initiative Awards are coming

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: March 31, 2015 - 3:58 PM

It's not simple to improve water quality, stop invasive species, reduce waste, protect the climate, use energy more efficiently – or address a host of other issues. And our political system can make something that is already difficult seem nearly impossible.

So it’s important to take any chance we can to reflect on the good things and recognize successful efforts that protect the Minnesota we all love. For more than twenty years, Environmental Initiative, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing businesses, non-profits, governments and individuals together to solve problems, has celebrated collaborative environmental success stories from across the state at their annual awards program.

The Environmental Initiative Awards is an uplifting reminder about the tremendous passion and commitment we have for Minnesota’s lakes, lands and way of life. Through economic ups and downs and changes in political leadership, Environmental Initiative receives award-worthy projects year after year. This year is no exception.  You can learn about all the award finalist here

I hope you will join me, along with over 450 of my closest friends, to be the first to hear the winners. Winning projects in each category will be announced “Academy Award Style” at the Environmental Initiative Awards dinner and celebration on Thursday, May 21, at Nicollet Island Pavilion in Minneapolis. Roll out the Green Carpet!

Cleaner water, more habitat, bipartisan support

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: March 11, 2015 - 8:35 AM

There is bipartisan support for a new measure to improve the water quality of our rivers and streams while creating thousands of acres of important wildlife habitat.

A bill introduced this week (House File 1543/Senate File 1537) would strengthen existing rules requiring buffer strips along all of the state’s rivers, streams and drainage ditches. Buffer strips are recognized as a common sense and effective approach to pollution prevention. Current law calls for 50 foot buffer strips along some waterways that run through agricultural areas, but many waterways are exempt, and the confusing regulations are unevenly enforced.

Why is this so important? This legislation comes on the heels of a recently released study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency which found that of the 93 streams sections it studied in southwest Minnesota, only three were capable of supporting aquatic life, and only one, a small part of the Ocheyedan River near Worthington, was deemed safe for aquatic recreation such as swimming.

The new bill, which has the support of Governor Dayton and a number of republicans in the legislature, would make the 50 foot buffer strip of perennial vegetation the simple standard along all public waterways that flow through a majority of the growing season. It would provide more water protection and tools for more effective enforcement.

In addition to protecting rivers and streams, the legislation would provide flood protection and add valuable habitat for birds, pollinators and other wildlife.

While there will no doubt be more polarized fights as this year’s legislative session winds down, it is good to see that common ground could be reached between the Governor and the Republican-controlled House on an initiative that would provide great benefit to all Minnesotans.


Why would we slow the growth of clean energy businesses?

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: March 9, 2015 - 9:29 AM

Minnesota is a hotbed for clean energy business growth. It’s hard to understand why some legislators are saying, “Slow down.”

The state’s clean energy market is growing rapidly. Employment in clean energy businesses – such as solar and wind installations, biofuels production capacity and energy efficiency – surged by 78 percent between January 2000 and the first quarter of 2014. These are good jobs – average annual wages were more than $71,000 in 2013. That same year, Minnesota employers in the clean energy economy paid more than $1 billion in wages.

Which is why I’m scratching my head to understand why legislators have introduced a bill designed to create gridlock and slow down this progress.  The bill, which has a hearing in the Minnesota House today, would slow down Minnesota’s implementation of the Clean Power Plan by adding an unneeded layer of legislative approval and the partisanship that comes with it. 

As part of the Clean Air Act, Congress has required that the EPA take steps to reduce air pollution that harms the public’s health. The Clean Power Plan helps fulfill that requirement by reducing dirty carbon pollution from power plants. The EPA is giving states tremendous flexibility in deciding how to best meet these pollution reduction goals.  

Because of our success in clean energy, the Clean Power Plan is an opportunity for Minnesota to press our advantage and create even more high paying jobs. If the bill (HF 333) passes, legislative gridlock would risk Minnesota losing our opportunity to decide for ourselves. Instead, we could end up with a “Federal Implementation Plan” designed by Washington.

This is cut-and-paste legislation, written by people who don’t live in Minnesota, and who certainly don’t have our state’s best interests at heart. It’s odd to see legislators act against the interests of Minnesota businesses. That said, there’s a reason why this legislation is being introduced here. We have one of the strongest clean energy economies in the nation – and there are people with a vested interest in keeping Minnesota dependent on dirty fuels imported from other states. 

Rather than giving power to outsiders, perhaps our legislators should support the clean energy employers who are growing jobs while protecting our state’s precious rivers, lakes and streams. 

Minnesota legislators put politics above public health

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: February 25, 2015 - 11:17 AM

There is a time and a place for politics. Heck, every few years as November rolls around, it may even seem there are too many places for politics. But one place politics does not belong is in the laboratories that help establish our public health standards.    

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has a solid reputation of being the independent protectors of the state’s lakes, air and lands. The agency houses an impressive collection of experts who are all charged with working to protect the health of all Minnesotans by protecting our air and water from pollution. They have been directed by past legislatures and Governors to make decisions based on science and not politics. 

But apparently that era of independent decision-making may be coming to a close. 

This year the Minnesota legislature is in the process of debating four bills that would undermine the authority of the MPCA and replace science with politics as the deciding factor for what is best for the state. 

These bills would slow the enforcement process of clean water standards, and, in some cases, allow the legislature to shop for science that better aligns with their political agenda, should the science being provided by their own independent agencies not produce the answers they wanted. 

  • House Files 853 (Senate File 868) and House File 1000 (Senate File 1007) would allow the Legislature to block the MPCA from enforcing the state’s existing sulfate standard meant to protect waters that support native wild rice. 
  • House Files 616 (Senate File 689) and House 617 (Senate File 690) would give the legislature veto power over water quality rules and other agency rule making authority.  These bills claim to add peer review and cost-benefit analysis to the agency decision-making process. Fortunately, those safeguards already exist, so basically these bills would waste taxpayer money on duplicative effort and allow industries that oppose enforcement to keep re-doing the science until they find science that supports their agenda. 

Minnesotans have come to trust that the state’s agencies use a careful, science-based process designed to protect Minnesota lakes, rivers, and drinking water from pollutants such as nitrogen, phosphorus, ammonia and poisonous bacteria. These bills would add another layer of expensive, duplicative, and unnecessary delays to this scientific process.

In 2008 Minnesotans voted overwhelmingly to tax themselves to provide resources that protect and clean up our lakes, rivers and drinking water. They certainly did not increase their taxes to see the authority of state agencies responsible for fulfilling their vision gutted.    

While the actions of a few legislators to weaken our environmental protections are being debated, ultimately it will be the actions of the many who decide if they are successful. So decide for yourself whether politics or public health is more important to you.  Then be sure to let state decision makers know what you think.


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