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.

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.

Are french fries killing our forests?

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: February 5, 2015 - 8:57 PM

Could our love of French fries be jeopardizing some of the state’s final remaining jackpine forestland?

That is the question at the middle of a decision announced today by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to conduct a discretionary environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) on a part of Northwest Minnesota that has seen a rapid increase in conversion of forestland to farmland in recent months.

In addition to protecting the forests, the EAW will also serve to ensure that any future development in the region is done in a way that will ensure that the region’s water supply remains safe for consumption, for the regions plants and animals and for recreational uses.  Given the sandy nature of the soils found in these forest lands, it is believed that the entire Pineland Sands Aquifer could be extra susceptible to nitrate pollution from agricultural fertilizers, which could impact drinking water as far south at the Twin Cities. Additionally, the forests are the home to several rare plant and animal species, including the Blandings Turtle, which is a threatened species.  

R.D. Offutt, a North Dakota-based potato processor, has been purchasing and clearing forestland in Becker, Cass, Hubbard and Wadena Counties. The company is the nation’s largest potato grower, and its customers include several national fast food chains. 

Potlatch, a national lumber and paper company, has long owned a large portfolio of forestlands around northern Minnesota.  The company is currently seeking to divest itself of some of these holdings. Currently Potlatch has 177 forested parcels ranging in size from a few acres to a few hundred acres listed for sale on its website.  With agricultural land for sale being scarce and highly priced, there are economic pressures to convert forest land. 

Offutt has already purchased 12,000 acres of pine forest, and they are believed to be eyeing another 17,000 acres in the region.  Today’s decision does nothing retroactively on the 33 permits the company has already been granted, but it temporarily stop processing of the 21 permit applications that are currently awaiting DNR approval.  It is estimated that the EAW will take somewhere between nine and twelve months to complete. 

“It’s important that the DNR carefully consider the implications that this rapid forest land clearing and conversion will have on water quality, water supply, and related resources in this region and beyond,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said in a press conference announcing the planned EAW. “People rely on these water sources, and we want to take a hard look at any potential impacts.”

Minnesotans should applaud the DNR for taking this important step.  Getting the facts now is important.  It is a much better option than those that would be available after such important drinking water sources are lost.  

 

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

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