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.

Time to Repay the Conservation Shift

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: March 13, 2014 - 4:57 PM

With the recent news that the state's economy is showing signs of recovery, and a budget surplus projected, the next obvious debate is what to do with the surplus. 

We hear frequently about tax rebates, rainy day funds and repaying the school funding shift, but I want to propose an alternative that is not being addressed. 

Now is the time for the state to also begin repaying the conservation shift. 

What is the conservation shift, you ask? 

While an analysis of state conservation spending shows that state leaders have done a good job of protecting voter approved Legacy Amendment funds from raids,  over the past dozen years, the state of Minnesota has repeatedly dipped into various conservation and environmental budgets and even dedicated conservation funds to stem the seemingly annual tides of budgetary peril. 

Between 2001 and 2013, the state slashed general fund spending on conservation by 66 percent, going from .22 percent of state general fund spending to .072 percent.  In addition, revenues from fees and other funds intended for environmental programs were raided and used to fill budget holes, including significant raids of solid waste tax revenues (that are supposed to be used for recycling and landfill cleanup) and lottery funds intended for natural resource protection.

The 2013 Legislature made some small increases for conservation, including additional funds for groundwater management and parks and trails, but delayed the repayment of funds raided from the closed landfill investment fund and failed to repay the other conservation funds that have been pilfered in the last decade.

With the budget picture now recovering, we are truly at a crossroads. 

Do we, as a state, show our continued commitment to the environment and conservation by repaying these shifts that served their purpose in helping us out of previous budget jams.  Or, do we decide that protecting our lakes and rivers and conserving our natural resources is no longer a priority for the state, and allow these alleged shifts to become permanent cuts? 

For details, you can view Conservation Minnesota’s 2014 State Budget Analysis here.  

Fish On!

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: March 4, 2014 - 10:31 AM

The Minnesota state bird is the common loon.  The Minnesota state tree is the Norway pine. The Minnesota state muffin is the blueberry.  And Minnesota’s state soil is lester.  But did you know that the state fish is the walleye?

Students in grades K-12 have a great opportunity to show just how much they know about the state-fish by entering a contest that combines artistic abilities and biology to see which Minnesota student is the king or queen of the fish. 

For the sixteenth year, Wildlife Forever will be organizing an international competition in which students are being invited to participate in the State-Fish Art Contest. The goal is to have students of every age and talent level submit drawings of any state-fish, as well as a one- page written essay, story or poem on its behavior, habitat and conservation needs.

And not to leave out the teachers, Wildlife Forever has created, Fish On!, a curriculum to go with the contest educating students about aquatic conservation.  The curriculum can easily be downloaded from the Wildlife Forever website or it can be sent in CD form free of charge to any teacher who would like to use it.  

The best entries from each state in four age ranges (K-3, 4-6, 7-9 and 10-12) will be selected and displayed online and at the State-Fish Art EXPO in conjunction with the FLW Forrest Wood Cup bass world championship on August 15-17 in Columbia, South Carolina.  Winning entrants who chose to attend the event will be recognized on stage for their talents.  

Entrants must be postmarked by March 31.  For more information on the contest, go to www.statefishart.org

Wildlife Forever is a Brooklyn Center-based organization whose mission is to conserve America's wildlife heritage through conservation education, preservation of habitat and management of fish and wildlife. As the nonprofit conservation arm of the North American Hunting Club and North American Fishing Club, Wildlife Forever represents the conservation interests of 1.3 million members.

Conservation and the New Farm Bill

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: February 24, 2014 - 1:43 PM

When he signed the Farm Bill earlier this month, President Obama described it as being so much more than a bill about agriculture. 

"Despite its name, the farm bill is not just about helping farmers,” Obama said. “Secretary Vilsack calls it a jobs bill, an innovation bill, an infrastructure bill, a research bill, a conservation bill. It’s like a Swiss Army knife.”

This bill is far from perfect.  But thankfully some of the compromises needed to pass the bill help address concerns in the conservation community. 

The bill contains an agreement between conservation and agricultural organizations that will see conservation compliance efforts incorporated into the federal crop insurance program. The goal of this was to protect millions of acres of vulnerable land.  Along similar lines, the bill also strengthens the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help support wildlife habitat. 

Another project that will have a direct impact on Minnesotans is the Sodsaver provision which is intended to encourage the protection of critical grassland and prairie habitats by reducing available federal subsidies when such lands are converted into cropland.  While the current version of the bill only has this apply to Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, there is hope that Congress will recognize the value and expand the program in future farm bills.  

Public access to private lands for hunting, fishing, hiking and bird watching also was encouraged under the new bill, with a source of funding set aside to encourage land owners to open their property for such uses. 

While some strides were made, there were also some negatives to come as a part of the legislation. The bill cuts $6 billion from conservation over the coming decade, and it will roll back the number of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program from 32 million to 24 million. 

As the dust settles on this massive piece of legislation, one thing is clear.  Given the debate we have been watching for months, it could have been a lot worse.  While some very important strides were made, there is still plenty of work that can, and needs to be, done before taking up the next farm bill.

 

 

What’s the Score?

Posted by: Paul Austin under Government, Politics Updated: February 20, 2014 - 3:41 PM

For the past 43 years, the League of Conservation Voters has issued an annual scorecard on how members of Congress voted on issues that are important to the conservation community.  The votes that were tracked ranged from public health protections to clean energy to land and wildlife conservation.   

This year’s scorecard was recently released, and it showed that Minnesota’s Congressional delegation is basically split right down the middle along party lines, with one big exception.  

Our Senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, each received perfect scores from LCV on the 13 votes that were tracked in the Senate.  That made Minnesota one of only nine states where the Senators each received perfect scores.  

In the House, more than twice that many (28) votes were counted, and the scores ranked from a high of 96 for Rep. Keith Ellison to a low of 0 for Rep. John Kline.  The rest of the Republicans stayed in the bottom 20 percentile with Rep. Paulsen scoring a 7 and Rep. Bachmann scoring an 11.  All but one of the democrats stayed in the top 20 percent, with Rep. McCollum at 93 and Representatives Walz and Nolan each receiving a score of 86.  Rep. Colin Peterson, a democrat who represents a traditionally republican district along the state’s western border, was the true outlier in the results when he received a score of 14. 

With all the budget wrangling and polarizing social issues being debated in Washington, it is easy for people to lose track of how members are voting when it comes to these critically important votes.  While some will decry that this scorecard is nothing more than a cynical partisan attack on republicans, the scores are based on votes, so each member earned their own score with their own voting record.  And, as is clear with Rep. Peterson, votes against the environment are not in the sole ownership of either caucus.  

Annually, the organization also creates a, “Dirty Dozen” list of members who are the worst of the worst.  While in past years Minnesotans have made this list, this year, none were included.  Nationally, new members who defeated inhabitants of the 2012 Dirty Dozen list have an average 2013 score of 92 percent, while the members that they replaced had an average lifetime score of just 12 percent.

On its website, the League of Conservation Voters has created an interactive tool that allows people to search scorecards going back to the first one in 1971 to see how individual members have voted and been ranked on these key issues.  The website is available at http://scorecard.lcv.org/. 

State of Water Conference Will Discuss the Future of Water in Minnesota

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: February 7, 2014 - 2:06 PM

In the land of 10,000 lakes, water is truly part of who we are. 

But how are we doing when it comes to protecting this most basic of natural resources?   

It seems like daily there are news reports about the spread of aquatic invasive species, a new threat to groundwater or proposed new policies that could impact how we all are able to enjoy our lakes and rivers.  And for anyone who leads even a marginally busy life, staying on top of all these developments can be a real challenge. 

That is part of the reasoning behind the first of what organizers hope will be a biennial State of Water Conference. 

Building off the success of previous water summits hosted by Minnesota Waters, the 2014 State of Water conference will bring together many of the primary agencies and organizations who protect our waters with groups who utilize our water resources to host a dialogue on the future of water in Minnesota. 

Given the number of threats we face today, be it from invasive aquatic species, expanding mining, agriculture or simple development, it is important that the state create a roadmap for addressing these issues and start working together to create a plan for a sustainable future. And on the first two days of May this year, those stakeholders will gather at Cragun’s on Gull Lake to do just that.

The conference will feature speakers from the Department of Natural Resources, Pollution Control Agency and Board of Water and Soil Resources as well as a number of lake and river organizations and other interested parties.  In all the two-day summit will include 35 break out sessions across topics ranging from aquatic invasive species and watersheds to local activity opportunities and restoring aquatic habitat. 

Partnering to co-sponsor this event are the Freshwater Society, the DNR, MPCA, University of Minnesota Extension, the Midwest Glacial Lakes Partnership and Conservation Minnesota.  More information on the event is available at http://www.conservationminnesota.org/state-of-water-conference/.

Registration for the conference began earlier this week. The number of available registration slots is limited, so be sure to register early to guarantee a seat at the table for this very important discussion on the future of water in this state.  

The Truth Can Be Worse Than Fiction

Posted by: Paul Austin under Government Updated: January 27, 2014 - 4:02 PM

We should learn from events in West Virginia

A brand new company leaks several thousand gallons of toxic chemicals into a watershed that is the primary water source for approximately 300,000 people. Upon noticing its liability, the company declares bankruptcy, and next thing you know, the residents who were harmed by the leak are asked to pay to clean it up with their tax dollars. 

This scenario actually played out in with the chemical spill in West Virginia a few weeks back.  But its an important reminder for all of us that bankruptcy is an easy and quick option for companies when disaster hits.  If were not careful, taxpayers are left to pick up the pieces…and pay for them.

Tomorrow night the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will be facilitating its third and final public hearing on the environmental impacts of a proposed copper nickel mine which will rest on the watershed that feeds the City of Duluth and its surrounding areas with the majority of its drinking water. The population of the Duluth metro area is also right around 300,000.  

Copper nickel mining has never been done in this state, and it has never been done anywhere in this country without leaving a history of water pollution in its wake.  While some point to the relatively clean history of iron mining as proof that type of mining can be done safely, the truth is, iron mines have little in common with this proposed mine.  When tailings from iron mines are exposed to the elements, they create rust.  When tailings from a copper-nickel mine are exposed to the same air and rain, it produces sulfuric acid.  

 The hearing, which begins at 5 p.m. at River Center in St. Paul, will give people the opportunity to learn more about the proposals, and, if they so desire, share their thoughts on the project in either written form, or as a speaker at the public forum.  In the two previous public forums, one in Duluth and one in Aurora, hundreds of people showed up to make their concerns known. 

I am concerned that the plan put forward by the mining company, Polymet, will require treatment of polluted water at the site for hundreds of years after mining stops.  I am also concerned that the company has no plans in its 2000+ page document for what it would do if something predictable goes wrong like a pipeline break or wastewater treatment failure.  Finally, I am concerned that there are no details as to how taxpayers will be protected from   paying to clean up if the company decides not to stay and manage its waste for 500 years after they finish mining.  

Just like in West Virginia, at any moment a company can use bankruptcy to hide from its cleanup responsibilities.  Our state leaders shouldn't wait until the last minute of this public process to let Minnesota taxpayers know how they will protect us from ending up like folks in West Virginia. What good can come from avoiding the issue?

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