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.

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. 

Congress Alone Won’t Stop Invasive Carp

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: June 6, 2014 - 3:57 PM

A massive aquatic army is making its way toward the state of Minnesota, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.  

Invasive carp, the general name given to a collection of species that include the bighead, silver, black and grass carp (also formerly known as Asian carp) are not yet established in Minnesota, but a few of them have been captured north of the Iowa border in the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers.  The fish can eat anywhere between 20 and 120 percent of their body weight per day, making them a serious threat to native aquatic life in the waterways they infest.  The Silver carp can weigh more than 100 pounds and jump as much as 10 feet out of the water, making navigation of infested waters treacherous.  Invasive carp have no known predators, and are so aggressive that they frequently out-compete native fish for food and habitat.  

Congress recently passed legislation that would see the lock at St. Anthony Falls closed in an effort to reduce the risk of the fish spreading to waterways north of the Twin Cities. A federal multi-agency task force has also been created to look into ways to further slow the spread of the invasive carp.  But while rules and laws are put into place, the first line of defense remains with the users of potentially infested waterways.  A simple message has become the rallying cry of those who fear what invasive carp could mean to Minnesota’s lakes and streams.  

Don’t use the locks, and stay in one pool at a time.

While in days gone by the lock and dam system was an efficient and even fun way of moving up and downstream, today there is no way of telling if you are sharing your ride in the aquatic elevator with invasive carp. And while the locks will remain open, the organizations attempting to slow the spread of the carp are asking fishing boats, canoes and kayaks to not use the locks and to enjoy one pool (the area between two Mississippi locks) at a time. Instead, use boat launches to move from pool to pool. 

Congress deemed the closing of the St. Anthony Falls lock acceptable because of the low amount of commercial shipping traffic that utilizes it, but the locks lower in the river system will be required to remain functional to allow commercial shipping to reach the Twin Cities.  So, for people who use the lower stretches of the Mississippi, when at all possible, please stay in one  pool to ensure our waters stay safe and free of these ‘flying’ fish and other invaders.  

Additionally, the standard boating rules of cleaning your boat between launches and pulling the boat plug before trailering can help prevent the spread of other invasive species, like zebra muscles, found throughout Minnesota.  Even if it seems like a lot of hassle, pulling the boat plug only takes a few minutes and can help prevent undetectable carp eggs from making it into the next body of water you visit.   

These carp have made it to within a few miles of our border to the south.  The only thing keeping them from fully infesting all of Minnesota’s waterways is vigilance on the part of Minnesota boaters.

When you next head for the water, please remember to keep your boat clean, and stay in one pool. 

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.  


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