State Rep. Willard Munger, who had a hand in creating everything from the lottery-financed Environmental Trust Fund to the state's bicycle-trail system, died Sunday at Duluth's St. Mary's Hospital, leaving a 43-year public record of extraordinary environmental activism. The Duluth DFLer was 88.
"He was an ardent environmentalist before there was Earth Day," said former state Sen. Gene Merriam. "He was quite courageous and visionary." The DFLer was Munger's counterpart for six years as chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
"If you're going to pick the most influential person in terms of environmental protection in Minnesota over the past 50 years, his name would certainly come to mind," said Minneapolis lawyer Charles Dayton.
Dayton is a prominent representative of environmental groups.
Munger, nicknamed "Mr. Environment," served his west Duluth district in the Minnesota Legislature for 43 years, starting in 1954, with only one two-year interruption, which occurred when he ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 1964.
Upon turning 87, he became the oldest legislator in state history; he also was the longest-serving House member. Three former senators -- Carl M. Iverson, Anton J. Rockne and Donald O. Wright -- share the legislative service record of 44 years.
After his liver cancer was diagnosed in February, Munger kept up his work at the Capitol, sometimes using a motorized cart to help him make his rounds. Up until his death, he planned to seek another term in 2000.
Munger sponsored or advocated nearly every piece of legislation related to the environment in Minnesota during the last half of the century.
His causes included the restrictions on the pesticide DDT in 1969 -- Minnesota was the first state to legislate it -- and establishing the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund in 1990, in which about 7 cents of every dollar spent on lottery tickets is set aside to protect and restore natural resources. He was the longtime chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, who presided over what Dayton called "a flood of legislation," in the early '70s.
"Minnesota's very different today as a result of those years," said Jackie Rosholt, who worked as Munger's committee administrator from 1973 to 1985.
She added that the Environmental Trust Fund was Munger's proudest achievement and that there's some talk among environment groups that the fund should be named in his honor.
Munger already has his name on the 69-mile bicycle trail from Duluth to Hinckley, Minn. He advocated converting abandoned railroad ways to state trails, a stance Merriam recalls as being nearly as unpopular as Munger's efforts to put more northern Minnesota land into the public hands.
"He didn't care how popular things were if he thought he was right," Merriam said.
Munger could see some of his handiwork from his house on the St. Louis River. The river underwent a $115 million cleanup.
"He loved to get people there because he wanted them to see how the river had come back," Merriam said. "When he came to the Legislature in 1954, it was basically an industrial sewer."
Gov. Jesse Ventura's office said in a statement: "The governor and First Lady are saddened by the passing of Rep. Willard Munger and offer their sympathy and condolences to the Munger family and recognize Rep. Munger's many years of dedicated service to the people of Minnesota."
Munger planned to retire in 1998 but reconsidered when his wife of 33 years, Frances, died in 1997 at age 81. "I might as well be in the Legislature, making some accomplishments, rather than sit around and be sad," he told the Duluth News-Tribune at the time. The couple were married in 1964 after their first spouses died.
"People come and go from the Legislature and burn out, but Willard never does," Mike Jaros, a fellow DFL legislator from Duluth, said earlier this year. "He keeps going because he believes in what he's doing. He's a true statesman who has always worried more about others than himself."