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.

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. 

Legacy Funding Has Big Arts Impact

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: April 9, 2014 - 1:16 PM

Now entering its fifth year, the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment is starting to hit its stride. Passed overwhelmingly by the voters of Minnesota in 2008, the amendment constitutionally dedicates 3/8 of one percent of tax revenue to projects that preserve the state's outdoors and arts legacy.

Since its inception, Conservation Minnesota, along with the Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, have been monitoring the Legacy Amendment and its distributions to identify the successes and challenges created by the new program. Neither of the organizations receives Legacy funds.

This year, one of the biggest success stories identified by the group was the positive impact that the Minnesota State Arts Board and its eleven regional arts councils are having as they assist with distribution of legacy funds to artists around the state.

The State Arts Board and the Regional Councils exemplify everything that is good about the Legacy Amendment. They are soliciting compelling grant requests from artists throughout the state, and helping ensure that Minnesota's history of artistic expression remains vibrant. 

Be it helping stage theatrical productions at regionaltheaters around the state, funding public art or helping provide concerts for the whole community to enjoy, there are all sorts of arts projects that arebenefiting from the legacy amendment and the leadership of the state arts board and the regional arts councils.

As a part of the recent Arts Advocacy Day at the State Capitol, the State Arts Board and the Regional Arts Councils were singled out for their exemplary work using volunteers to decide how to invest Legacy arts dollars, and were given Legacy Partner Awards from Conservation Minnesota and the Minnesota Citizens For The Arts. 

At the award presentation, it was announced that the organizations had worked with 788 volunteers who has provided more than 34,000 volunteer hours of expertise in determining which projects would most benefit the state. 

This is a perfect example of how residents are feeling the Legacy Amendment’s impact, and how truly good things are resulting from the decision by the voters to prioritize the things that are important to all Minnesotans. 

More information on the Legacy Amendment is available at


We all do better when we all do better

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: April 5, 2014 - 8:42 PM

It started out as a laudable goal.  Rep. Frank Hornstein included a provision in the House supplemental budget that would update the state’s outdated recycling rate targets, encourage more business recycling, and increase funding for county recycling programs.  

But as often happens when bills like this are debated in the dark of night, the section relating to commercial waste was rather quietly stripped from the bill.  The final vote was taken well after the capitol press corps had filed their stories and gone home for the day. 

With the state’s commercial sector producing half of the state’s waste, it only makes sense that businesses be encouraged to do their part in helping the state become better at recycling. But just such a move was not in the cards for the Minnesota House.   

Minnesota, as a whole, is good at recycling.  But while we have a long history of supporting recycling, we are now lagging behind many other states when it comes to recycling organics, cans and bottles, and problem materials like batteries, mattresses, and carpet.   

Recycling rates have remained stagnant even though more than half of the state is now utilizing single sort recycling. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has said repeatedly that single sort is not a silver bullet that will allow Minnesota to meet its recycling goals.  It is but one tool in a whole toolbox of options. 

We need to start looking at some of those other tools if we are going to meet our goals.  The Hornstein effort to kick start business recycling was a good place to begin.

And it is not too late.  There is still an opportunity to resurrect the business recycling provision when the bill heads to conference committee.  To add your voice to the debate and to urge your representatives to support increased recycling, click here.

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

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.




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