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.

The Fight Continues For Toxic Free Kids

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: May 28, 2014 - 8:55 PM

One of the biggest disappointments of the recently completed Minnesota Legislative session was the failure of the legislature to pass the Toxic Free Kids Act.

The bill was very basic.  It would require companies that market products to children under the age of 12 to notify the state annually if any of their children’s products contain any of nine highly toxic chemicals that are currently being tracked by the state.  The bill would not have outlawed the use of the toxics in children’s products.  It wouldn't have even required labeling of children’s products that contain toxic chemicals.  It simply would have required the producers to report their intent to use of toxic chemicals in children’s products. 

The House passed the bill, and the Governor went to bat for it in the final days of the session, but ultimately, the Senate decided to slam on the brakes on what seemed like a real piece of common sense legislation.  Conservation Minnesota was part of a broad coalition of organizations that worked hard on this bill, and we plan to redouble our efforts next year to make sure that parents have the opportunity to find out if there are toxic chemicals in the products we buy for their children. 

Another of the organizations that we partnered with on this fight was LDA Minnesota, the state’s leading nonprofit educational agency helping children, youth, and adults at risk for learning disabilities and other learning difficulties. Their Executive Director, Martha Moriarty, had a wonderful commentary on the editorial page today. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out,  you can do so here:

Legacy Amendment Bringing Big Changes To Minnesota's State Parks

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: May 22, 2014 - 9:04 AM

While rightly set aside to pay tribute to the soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country, Memorial Day also has taken on the mantle of being the unofficial start to the summer season in Minnesota.

With the winter we have just endured, and nice weather forecast for the majority of the upcoming weekend, the opportunity to get out and enjoy some sunlight and fresh air is a top priority for many.

If a state park is in your plans, you may be surprised to see how much things have changed, maybe even since you last visit.  Thanks to the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which was approved overwhelmingly by the voters five years ago, a number of rather dramatic improvements have taken place at parks around the state. 

One of my favorite parks has always been Jay Cooke, which is just a few miles outside of Duluth. 

Following a major flood in 2012, a great deal of damage was done to buildings and the iconic swinging bridge in the park.  But visitors this year will find the bridge has been re-opened, and thanks to Legacy Amendment funding, the River Inn Visitor Center has been modernized with a number of key upgrades. The River Inn was originally constructed of local rock and white pine in the early 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and is currently on the National Register of Historic Places.

In addition to Jay Cooke, parks throughout the state have seen recent improvements. The Amendment has allowed over 70,000 acres of native plant communities such as grassland and prairie to be restored on state park lands. The Department of Natural Resources has also been able to complete renewable energy and energy conservation projects at parks including Big Bog, Glendalough, Grand Portage, Great River Bluffs, Lake Shetak and the Iron Range off-highway vehicle recreation area near Glibert. The Amendment has also allowed ADA-approved picnic tables and safer fire rings to be installed at 1,600 campsites in state parks and 5 new camper cabins to be added to the state park system.

The enhancement to the state park system has not gone without notice. Since passage, State Park permit sales have increased by 18 percent, with daily permits up 16 percent and overnight stays up by nine percent. And attendance at state park programming, another target of the Amendment, is up nearly 40 percent in the five years since the Amendment went into law. 

Five years in, the Legacy Amendment is showing clearly that the funds are having the desired impact on preserving the state’s outdoors and cultural heritage.  

What is General Mills Hiding?

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: May 13, 2014 - 9:38 AM

Since 2010, the Minnesota Department of Health has tracked a class of priority chemicals that are singled out for their toxicity to humans. The nine chemicals on this list, things like lead, cadmium, BPA and formaldehyde, have been linked to increased risks for autism, learning disabilities, cancer and fertility issues.

But for some reason, General Mills doesn’t want Minnesotans to know which children’s products sold in this state contain these toxic chemicals. 

Recently, the Minnesota House passed legislation called the Toxic Free Kids Act that asks corporations that sell children’s products to report if they contain any of these highly toxic chemical compounds.  The bill wouldn’t ban the use of the chemicals.  It wouldn’t even require the products to have labels that signify they contain the chemicals of high concern.  It would simply require that any children's product containing the chemicals be reported to the states environmental and health officials where that information would be available to the public.

The bill sailed easily through the House, but a push by General Mills appears to have stalled out progress among State Senators.  House author Ryan Winkler has been told directly by General Mills that they are opposed to the legislation. 

General Mills holds a well-earned reputation as being a good corporate citizen of this state.  But by flexing its political muscle to avoid providing parents with vitally important safety information about the products they market for our children, they put this good name in jeopardy. 

As the father of child with autism, I know how important this type of information is as my wife and I make decisions about our son's health.  Unfortunately, General Mills appears determined to keep information away from parents.  It is appalling that they are opposed to the idea of simply reporting if any of their children’s products contain these toxic chemicals.

The legislature owes it to all Minnesotans to send a clear message that the health and well being of our children trumps the political concerns of even the most iconic of Minnesota companies. 

If you would like to contact General Mills and ask them to support the Toxic Free Kids Act please click here:

Legacy Amendment Successes on Display this Fish Opener

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: May 9, 2014 - 2:08 PM

This weekend, Governor Mark Dayton and Lt. Governor Yvonne Prettner-Solon will take to the waters of Gull Lake in the Brainerd Lakes Area to participate in the 67th annual Governor’s fishing opener.  The Governor’s fishing opener has a fascinating history.  For the first three years, Governor Youngdahl didn’t even attend the event he is credited with creating.  In his absence, The Minneapolis Tribune took charge of the Governor’s fishing opener, and its outdoor writers used it as an excuse to fish on Lake Mille Lacs each spring and get paid to write about it. 

Figuring the governor was not an integral part of the event, Governor C Elmer Anderson from Nisswa chose to fish Gull Lake for the openers during his time in office, while the Tribune kept the formal Governor’s opener on Mille Lacs.  Future governors used the annual event to host private fishing trips for political insiders.  It wasn’t until 1961 that the event took its current form with the Governor, the media and dignitaries all fishing together in the same place. 

Another interesting item that comes from the history of the event is that, in its first year, Conservation Commissioner Chester Wilson approved $300,000 (which in today’s dollars would be around $2 million) for projects that would improve fishing and hunting around the state. 

A little more than 5 years ago, the voters of Minnesota did something similar when voting to approve the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment (Legacy Amendment) to the Minnesota Constitution.  The intent of the amendment was to dedicate a new 3/8 of one percent to the state sales tax to fund projects that would protect the state’s legacy when it comes to the environment and cultural heritage. 

This weekend when the state’s politicians and media descend on the Brainerd Lakes area, a number of projects funded by the Legacy Amendment will be on display.  With use of Legacy dollars, the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District was able to work with property owners around the lake to create additional natural shoreline buffers. While the work itself won’t be tremendously apparent to the untrained eye, the efforts are expected to prevent 500 pounds of sediment, seven pounds of phosphorus and 100,000 gallons of runoff from reaching Gull and Big Trout Lakes each year. This will translate into greater water transparency in coming years. 

Along similar lines, as Crow Wing County has the largest number of lake associations in the state, a micro-grant program has been created to help engage citizen groups in water quality protection throughout the Brainerd Lakes Area.  The grants will help connect lake associations with state and local resources that can help them implement projects that will address the issue of runoff on waterways throughout the county. 

Like the Lindy rigs the Governor will no doubt be tossing this weekend in his quest for walleye, the state’s legacy amendment doesn’t make a lot of noise or draw a lot of attention to itself, but over the years, it has proven to be tremendously effective.  

Lawmakers: Don't Let This Chance to Protect Children Slip Away

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: May 6, 2014 - 9:02 AM

I am just one of the growing number of Minnesota parents whose children face learning and social challenges every day.  My son Sammy was diagnosed with Autism before his second birthday.  Today he is six and about to finish kindergarten.  He has to work very hard at making friends, but he is determined.  My wife Jenny and I are determined to help him.

Like all parents, our ability to make decisions about our son's health depends on having good information.  Each day, scientists are finding links between prenatal and childhood exposure to toxic chemicals and a host of conditions that include autism, learning disabilities, infertility and cancers.  The Minnesota Department of Health has developed a list of the worst nine of these chemicals that includes things like lead, cadmium, and formaldehyde.  The Toxic Free Kids Act would require the makers of children's toys, clothing and bath products to report if they contain any of the chemicals on this list.

It seems obvious that health officials and parents should have a right to know if products being marketed for our children contain these toxic chemicals.  But the fact that the need for a law is obvious, doesn't make it easy to pass.  Corporate lobbyists are pushing industry backed "compromise" proposals that would make it impossible for parents to ever know if the products we buy for our kids contain toxic chemicals.

Thanks to the determination of Rep. Ryan Winkler, Rep. Jean Wagenius, and Speaker Paul Thissen, a strong version of the Toxic Free Kids Act has passed the house and is awaiting conference committee action.  If members of the Minnesota Senate will stand with parents across the state by voting "yes", the Toxic Free Kids Act could be law by the end of the week.  That is by far the best Mother's Day gift our state could deliver.

If you would like to learn more and show your support for the Toxic Free Kids Act, click here.

Big Issues Come In Small Packages

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: April 29, 2014 - 5:00 PM

Last week an issue caught me by surprise. 

The City of Minneapolis was considering an ordinance that would require all to-go food and beverage containers provided in the city to be either recyclable or compostable.  The goal was to work toward eliminating Styrofoam containers (which were actually banned in 1990 by a city ordinance that has never been enforced).  We posted a link to the news article on the Conservation Minnesota's Facebook page. 

Within days nearly 700 people had liked the post, nearly 100 shared it, and more than 100 commented on the idea. This response level ended up being close to that of our previous most popular posts regarding sulfide mining and clean waters.  Here at Conservation Minnesota, we like to think that we have our fingers on the pulse of what conservation-minded Minnesotans are following.  And while getting rid of Styrofoam was always on the long list of interesting topics, the strength of the support caught me off guard. 

It probably shouldn’t have.  The city of New York passed a similar ban in December.  Its ban also includes Styrofoam packing peanuts.  Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and a handful of other communities around the country have already outlawed Styrofoam food packaging. 

And it only makes sense.  If you were attempting to make a product that would be as damaging as possible to the environment, you would be hard pressed to invent something as perfect for the task as Styrofoam. Made from petroleum, the product is not biodegradable, so it continues to break down into smaller and smaller pieces, frequently absorbing toxins and either floats around forever, or, is ultimately ingested by wildlife. 

It is important to remember that while big issues may get most of the attention, relatively small changes, like banning Styrofoam food containers, can have an big impact. And it was refreshing to see how excited people are about this topic.   We need to keep an eye out for small steps that provide the catalyst for change in our communities and will help keep our home state a place of abundant & beautiful natural resources. 


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