Minnesota graveyards are crowded with conservation champions, many of them little-known because they were women, American Indians, African-Americans or members of other races or ethnicities whose work occurred outside the state’s environmentalist mainstream.
Indeed, while Minnesota rightly tallies among its all-star conservationists a lot of dead white guys, deserving of such recognition as well are many residents who are very much alive, among them increasing numbers of women and people of color.
Count among these Thurman Tucker, 76, whose sincere interest in Minnesota’s wild places and wild critters during the last half-century is unparalleled.
Born in Memphis and raised in Mississippi, Tucker, a self-described “quail nut,’’ moved to Minnesota in 1965 and in the years since has made countless solo journeys to southeast Minnesota hoping to spot, if only fleetingly, a bobwhite quail.
Tucker also formed a conservation organization, the Bobwhite Quail Society of Minnesota, which has since been folded into the national group, Quail Forever. Twice a year he helps organize well-attended quail-habitat banquets in the southeast and in the metro.
And while the racially charged confrontation between a black birder and a white woman on May 25 in New York City’s Central Park underscores the discomfort and even fear some black people and other minorities feel while recreating outdoors, Tucker said his experiences have been positive.
“Even in rural southeast Minnesota, where I obviously was of a different race and from a different place, and people might have thought, ‘Where did this guy come from?’ I never had any adverse situations,’’ Tucker said.
Minnesota’s overwhelmingly white (84%) population is fast becoming more diverse, with significant implications for outdoor recreation and especially for conservation.
That’s because fewer and fewer white people hunt and fish while, simultaneously, relatively few of the state’s growing minority populations participate in these and other conservation-funding activities.
Like Tucker, Mercedes Akinseye is bucking that trend.
Having grown up in the south metro in a family that neither hunted nor fished, Akinseye, 29, is of mixed race. She didn’t develop an interest in the outdoors until she was a teenager, and she was 19 when she took a hunter education course “with a bunch of 11-year-olds.”
“It was intimidating in a way, but I wasn’t afraid to ask questions,” she said.
A marketing and sales graduate of St. Mary’s University, Akinseye polished her outdoors résumé by volunteering for groups such as Fishing for Life and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA), and in 2018 was hired as a chapter coordinator by the deer hunters group.
Traveling constantly, she crisscrosses the state to help MDHA members who are mostly white, with an average age of 57, organize fundraising banquets and develop deer habitat.
“I’ve had some interesting experiences, I’ll say that, but never any negative ones,” Akinseye said. “I grew up learning how guys talk to one another, and how they operate. That helps.”
Like Tucker, who has introduced many kids to outdoor activities, including habitat development and trapshooting, Akinseye mentors young people.
“There’s hope for more kids to enjoy the outdoors, but it takes a lot of time,” she said. “For someone who grows up on 40 acres and plays in a pond as a kid, going hunting when they are old enough isn’t a big deal.
“But I grew up walking on paved trails. Until I learned more about the outdoors and became confident, I was terrified of the elements and of guns. Now my favorite activity is waterfowl hunting. You have to meet young people where they are and go from there.”
Blong Lor, who was born to Hmong parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Laos via a Thailand refugee camp, considered a legal career before becoming a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer.
The second youngest among a dozen kids in his family, Lor, a graduate of Concordia (St. Paul), says he has always wanted to be outdoors.
“I’ve been fishing for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t get to hunt until I was 11,” he said.
A 2018 graduate of the DNR’s Conservation Officer Academy, Lor enforces fish, wildlife and related laws in Chisago County.
“I personally haven’t felt any [negative] vibe from other conservation officers,” said Lor, who is among 23 minority officers in the DNR enforcement division. “I think in the past, some officers said they felt it when they started. But as time has passed, it’s gotten better. I don’t get any of that. If anything, I get more criticism from my own community, the Hmong. But it isn’t much.”
By a slight margin, more women live in Minnesota than men. But only recently have females made significant inroads in traditional outdoors activities such as hunting, fishing and conservation.
In 2010, for example, women accounted for only 10% of Minnesota’s approximately 550,000 hunters. By 2017, the percentage was 17.
Newcomers during this period included Julia Schrenkler, 51, of St. Paul, who first hunted in 2013.
Schrenkler’s dog, a female German short-haired pointer with intense game-finding instincts, in some ways guilt-tripped her master into becoming a hunter. Encouragement from members of groups such as Becoming an Outdoors Woman and Pheasants Forever sealed the deal, Schrenkler said.
“Without encouragement by members of those groups and from other hunters I’ve met, men as well as women, I don’t think I would have stuck with hunting,” she said. “Like everything else, the hunting world is essentially a community, and welcoming gestures, even if they’re small, are important to newcomers.”
Hoping to encourage still more people to hunt and promote conservation, Schrenkler serves on the DNR’s Recruit, Retain and Reactivate Council, whose intent is to encourage more outdoors participation by Minnesotans.
Though growing up very differently from Tucker, Akinseye, Lor and Schrenkler, Kelly Applegate shares their conservation passions.
Applegate, 44, is the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe resource management director. Like Tucker, he’s a cheerleader for an often unappreciated and all-too-rare bird, the purple martin.
“The Mille Lacs Band is the leader of the state’s Purple Martin Working Group, and our goal is to conserve purple martins across the state,” Applegate said.
The birds have long held special significance for Native Americans, Applegate said. But their numbers in Minnesota have declined 78% since 1965.
“I’ve been making purple martin houses since I was 12, and we started putting the houses up on tribal lands in 2007,” Applegate said. “Now our houses are 100 percent full, and we produce about 1,200 young each year.”