Minnesota legislator Jamie Becker-Finn is, in some ways, a reluctant city dweller.
Married and the mother of an 8-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl, Becker-Finn, a DFLer and attorney, lives in Roseville. A Ojibwe descendant, she grew up on the outskirts of Cass Lake, on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation. She’s hunted deer since she was a girl and is as comfortable jigging for walleyes in winter as she is in summer.
She wants her kids to be similarly interested in outdoor pursuits and, as importantly, to be environmentally aware.
“My husband and I are very intentional about making sure our kids aren’t afraid to touch minnows and be in the dirt,’’ she said.
Unfortunately, among Minnesota legislators, many of whom are urban dwellers serving urban constituencies, Becker-Finn, with her interests in the state’s legacy recreational pursuits and natural resource management in general, is an outlier.
Retired state Sen. Bob Lessard of International Falls predicted decades ago that such a legislative transformation was inevitable. The state’s fast-changing demographics, Lessard said, would within a few generations install in the Capitol legislators who know little about hunting or fishing, natural resource management or conservation in general.
Which is why, Lessard said, that over time Minnesota’s resources will face fewer threats from outside forces, whether Big Agriculture or Big Mining, than from those inside the state, including the ever-larger proportion of legislators who inevitably will turn a tin ear to natural resource management.
Lessard’s prediction has come true, Becker-Finn said.
“It became clear early in my first term there weren’t many legislators who participate much in the outdoors, including in hunting and fishing,’’ she said. “That’s changed a little with this year’s incoming legislative class, with a few more first-term legislators who are interested in the outdoors.’’
Yet it’s unknown whether enough interest exists in the Legislature this session to pass a bill Becker-Finn has proposed that would establish new outdoor education opportunities for young Minnesotans.
The proposal — which has a companion bill in the Senate supported by legislator Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee — would establish a No Child Left Inside grant program administered by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The program would award money to local governments and nonprofits for “environmental, ecological and other natural-resource-based education and recreation programs serving youth.’’
No money has been attached to the plan yet, Becker-Finn said, because legislative leaders haven’t finalized budget decisions. But she expects the program, if enacted, to be modestly funded, perhaps in the neighborhood of $30,000.
All well and good that Becker-Finn and Ingebrigtsen (among others, including Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division) correctly recognize the need to better and more comprehensively educate Minnesotans about their state and what’s required to sustain its land, water and other resources.
But Minnesota’s environmental education problem might be bigger than even they recognize, said Aitkin County land commissioner Rich Courtemanche.
Courtemanche is a volunteer with the Long Lake Conservation Center, one of the state’s cadre of learning outposts whose overnight outdoors-immersion programs traditionally have attracted school kids from throughout the state.
At a recent hearing on Becker-Finn’s bill, Courtemanche testified that far fewer schools from the Twin Cities and elsewhere are sending sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade kids to these centers.
Per-student price of the experience typically hovers around $100, with fundraisers and scholarships often supplementing the cost.
“Schools now are saying increasingly that they don’t have funds or are otherwise too pressed for resources and just can’t send kids anymore,’’ Courtemanche said.
Grim as Courtemanche’s report is, it likely underestimates the breadth of Minnesota’s — and the nation’s — nature-deficit problem.
That’s the opinion of Rich Wissink and others like him nationwide who show up for work every day trying to figure out how to more closely connect people — young and old — with the outdoors.
As vice president of education and outreach for Pheasants Forever, Wissink leads a multifaceted national program funded with more than $1 million annually that stresses habitat education and conservation leadership, among other goals.
The group’s plan joins a host of other, similar outdoors recruitment and retention programs, including those devised by other conservation groups and multiple state agencies such as the DNR.
“We’re having successes, especially with our national outdoor mentor training program that has been adopted by nine states,’’ Wissink said. “Efforts to promote the shooting sports, which help fund conservation nationally, and to educate kids and others about our hunting heritage, which funds much of the nation’s conservation, have also been successful.’’
But far more is needed, Wissink said — so much that Becker-Finn, Ingebrigtsen and Hansen might better serve the state if they drew up a considerably more comprehensive “No Child Left Inside” program.
“One of my dreams would be that every middle school student would be taught in a natural resources and conservation class how critically important clean water, clean air and healthy soil are, and how efforts to sustain these resources have been funded traditionally in this country,’’ Wissink said.
“Education is the key,’’ he said. “And we’re not doing it.’’