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.

White Pages Win

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: December 3, 2014 - 10:20 PM

Ask the average Minnesotan what the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) does, and you are likely to get a blank stare or maybe a semi-informed guess about how they regulate public utilities, you know, as a commission.

It's true, the less we hear about the Public Utilities Commission, the better they are likely doing at their stated mission of, “regulation of public utilities such as electric, natural gas and landline telephone service. The PUC also has oversight of the construction or modifications to large energy facilities such as electric power plants, transmission lines, wind power generation plants, and large natural gas and petroleum pipelines.” 

So, it is only understandable that a decision the PUC made in late November didn’t get a lot of attention, but it will have an impact that will literally be felt throughout the state.  The state’s largest telephone service provider CenturyLink, was able to convince the PUC to let them stop delivering telephone books to all of its customers.  The move follows a successful effort in 2012 by the smaller telephone service provider Frontier to do the same. 

There is a great expense, not only financial, but also environmental, in producing the huge number of phone books they were producing every year.  Centurylink prints 94 million pages per year for its Minneapolis white pages alone, but will not longer need to.

The new regulation will still require the company to provide white pages to those who request them, but by doing so, the company will be able to save a lot of paper by not mass producing a book with an ever-shrinking fan base.

While this is good news for Centurylink customers, there are still other white pages out there that will continue to be delivered.  Thankfully, the phonebook industry along with Conservation Minnesota has created a website that allows Minnesota residents to opt-out of receiving any future phonebook, as well as providing a resource for finding locations where existing phonebooks can be recycled.  The site can be found at http://www.donttrashthephonebook.com

How Energy Efficient Is That Home You Are Buying?

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: November 24, 2014 - 10:44 AM

Imagine if when you were shopping for a new house, you were able to look at energy efficiency as a factor that was as easily quantifiable as the number of bedrooms and bathrooms. 

A relatively new program being offered by the Center for Energy and the Environment and the Neighborhood Energy Connection is trying to make this happen by bringing energy efficiency clearly into the home buying process. 

Their program, Energy Fit Homes, offers multi-point inspections of homes to identify how they are doing on the energy efficiency spectrum.  They look at a home’s heating system, insulation and air sealing, windows, lighting, and ventilation and combustion safety to score the home on a scale of one to 100. 

Homes that score 95 or above will be given an Energy Fit certification that can be used when it comes time to sell.  Homes that still have some work to do will be given a report card that will rank the work in order of importance, and provide a list of possible government or utility company rebates available for the work. Once the work is completed, a second audit will be conducted to provide an updated score.  

And once certification is achieved, homes can now be listed (and searched) on the real estate Northstar Multiple Listing Service (MLS) as green-certified, a designation that was added to the search process only last year.  

While the audit is being marketed as a way to provide homeowners a leg up in the home selling process, the energy audit is equally useful for people who plan to stay in their homes. By making a few minor repairs and upgrades, people are finding that there are some fairly serious savings that can be realized. 

There is a small cost associated with getting the audit performed, but the cost is generally earned back in savings soon after achieving certification. 

More information on the project is available at http://www.mncee.org/Energy-Fit-Homes/Home/.

Large Herd of Caribou, Hold the (political) Froth

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: November 17, 2014 - 12:38 PM

With the exception of a brief visit by a few to Cook County in the winter of 1980, the only Caribou found in the state of Minnesota since the days of settlement have come with baristas and free wifi access. 

These days, the largest herd of caribou in North America reside 2,300 miles to the northwest in Alaska’s northern coastal plain.  The Porcupine Caribou, whose numbers are estimated to be around 160,000, have their calving grounds along the Porcupine River. The area is also home to all three species of America’s bears, wolves, and muskoxen. Millions of birds representing some 180 species migrate to the Coastal Plain to nest, rear their young, molt and feed. Birds from all 50 states and six continents migrate to this geographic region.

In 1960, with Alaska in its first full year of statehood, President Eisenhower set aside 8.9 million acres of federal land as the Arctic National Wildlife Range, in order to protect it from development.  In 1980, President Carter more than doubled the size of the protected area, and turned it into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  However, neither president included the 1.5 million acres along the Beaufort Sea on the state’s northern coast in their wildlife designations. 

Currently, Congress is working to remedy this oversight with H.R. 139, the Udall-Eisenhower Arctic Wilderness Act.  Named for president Eisenhower and former Rep. Morris Udall who helped lead the 1980s reforms through Congress. 

Versions of the bill have been tried in previous years.  Former Congressman Jim Ramstad was a champion of the effort during his time in congress, and currently, over half of Minnesota’s congressional delegation is signed on as authors or sponsors.  But while the bill enjoys some bipartisan support, it currently lacks enough bipartisan support to survive.  Representative Erik Paulsen could help change that by signing on and working for passage of this important measure.  

We are running out of opportunities to set aside pieces of largely untouched land to provide future generations with opportunities to experience the land the way we found it.  This is a great opportunity for us, as Americans, to preserve a amazingly diverse piece of wilderness for future generations. 

We can let partisan politics again derail this important effort.  Or we can see this as what it is, which is a historical opportunity that is larger than any political philosophy.      

Its time for a large herd of caribou, hold the political froth. 

Give to The Max, Literally

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: November 12, 2014 - 7:07 PM

I admit it.  I recently hired a moose.

It wasn’t an accident.  There were plenty of likely over-qualified humans who applied for the job, but none of them had the experience that we found in Max A. Moose. With the exception of a bizarre trip to Texas two years ago for Spring Break, Max has spent his whole life in the woods of northeast Minnesota.

And I am not going to lie.  With this being Give to the Max week, we have been doing everything we can to introduce Max to as many people as possible this week. We had him come down from the woods this past weekend, and he has been working out of our office sending out personalized fundraising requests.

Because, after all, who can champion the needs of Minnesota’s wild spaces better than a full time resident of those very wild places?  Sure, he’s really hard on the office furniture, has burned through a whole stack of keyboards and he has eaten just about every decorative plant in our entire office complex.  But he’s also the right guy for the job.  Yes, he did get trapped in the elevator for a little over an hour this morning.  But the bottom line is, we know Max A. Moose shares our passion for the things that really matter to Minnesotans. 

Max understands that nearly all Minnesotans at least appreciate that a love of our natural surroundings is a strongly held force that binds us together as residents of this state.  And he gets that it takes an organization like Conservation Minnesota to stand up and protect the things we all cherish.  Max understands that water doesn’t stay safe to drink, our air doesn’t stay safe to breathe and wilderness areas don’t stay free of encroachment without some help from organizations like ours.

So he volunteered to help out.  And I hired him.

As Give to the Max day rolls into town tomorrow, I hope you will consider literally giving to the Max.

#GTMD14 #GivetoMax

Healthy Energy for Rochester?

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: November 11, 2014 - 8:29 AM

In the past half century, the population of Rochester has doubled from right around 50,000 residents to today’s population of more than 100,000. 

Now, an ambitious new plan called the Destination Medical Center (DMC) will combine the efforts and contributions from players in the public and private sectors with a goal of creating a similar size increase in population in half the time.  The DMC project has set a goal of 45,000 new jobs created in the next two decades in the city of Rochester. 

The plan takes a holistic approach to looking at not just how to create new jobs, but what steps the city will need to undertake to support such growth in a sustainable manner. 

One area that will need attention is energy.  How do you power a city with fifty percent more residents? 

Conservation Minnesota recently sent a survey to the residents of Rochester to gauge their opinion of energy topics that impact their daily lives. 

The two questions that received the most support were about city initiatives to encourage walking, biking, and mass transit as a way to cut fuel use and pollution, and another about the city working to support efforts to increase the statewide target for the percentage of renewable energy that is used in our overall energy production. 

Nearly 70 percent of Rochester residents supported the decision by Rochester Public Utilities to host the Neighborhood Energy Challenge which helped residents not only better understand their electricity usage, but also identify opportunities to become more efficient.  A similar percentage supported an idea that has been floated that would see the city tap renewable energy sources to provide any increased future energy needs. 

There was also strong support for moving the city, know for its health care industry, away from using coal as a primary source for electricity.  Burning coal has been linked to increased mercury in lakes, asthma, and heart disease.  

It is clear that the people of Rochester are on the cutting edge of community growth planning, and our survey shows they recognize a key component of any such plan is wise energy consumption.  We look forward to seeing how community leaders use clean, healthy energy for its residents and businesses to reinforce the city’s worldwide reputation as a transformative leader in healthcare.  

Are you ready for Election Day?

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: November 3, 2014 - 2:26 PM

Tomorrow is Election Day and I wanted to provide you with some handy information to make the day easy and smooth.

Sometimes life can get in the way of showing up at the polls.  As you prepare for Election Day, research shows that the best way to make sure you don’t miss your opportunity is to ask yourself these questions ahead of time:

  • What time of day do you think you’ll vote?  Where will you be coming from at that time?
  • How will you get there?
  • Will you go with someone, or vote by yourself?
  • Will your children be with you?  Do you have someone to watch them?
  • Do you know where you vote?  Check here if you're not sure.

By answering these questions today, you can be sure you cast your vote tomorrow!  Here are some other helpful items:

  • Are you registered to vote at your current location?  If not you can register on Election Day.  Here is some great information on same day registration.
  • Most Minnesota polling places open at 7 a.m. and all polls close at 8 p.m.  If you are in line at 8 p.m. you have the right to vote and cannot be asked to leave or told that you are too late.
  • Need a Sample Ballot?  Here you go!
  • Do you know your legislator’s record on conservation issues?  You can learn about their votes by checking out www.checkmylegislator.org

If you have any questions, feel free to email my organization, Conservation Minnesota.  I hope you have a happy, safe, and smooth Election Day, tomorrow, November 4th.

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