If the Legislature adjourns on time Monday night, the Capitol will be a much less active place come Tuesday.

For this, conservationists and others who worry about Minnesota's lands, waters and wildlife will be thankful, because this session generally is believed to be one of the worst for their interests — which should be everyone's interests — in many years.

Yet, whatever the final details of environment legislation developed this session in St. Paul, or anti-environment legislation, lessons learned during these past few months by conservationists regarding the breadth and degree of ongoing threats to this state's wetlands, woods and critters should prompt new approaches to resource stewardship.

Either that or the political forces that intend each session to chip away at the protection, enhancement and acquisition for public use of the state's natural resources will become more emboldened in their efforts — this while the general citizenry stands idly by, too uninformed, distracted or both to realize what's happening.

Since statehood, conversion of Minnesota's natural resources to individual and/or corporate profit centers has been a hallmark of state politics. Some of this is good and necessary, and benefits everyone. Yet much of it detracts from the long-term well-being of the state and its people. And if allowed to continue unchecked, especially today, as the relative abundance and quality of resources dwindles, Minnesota risks becoming a shadow of is once resource-rich self — just another state, except with a lot of dirty water.

Consider: Between 1901 and 1930, under authorization of the State Drainage Commission, 5 million acres of southern Minnesota wetlands and other waters were drained and replaced by farmland.

One result: Lac qui Parle County's Cerro Gordo Township featured 1,668 acres of wetlands in 1954, 627 acres in 1962 and fewer than 400 in 1972.

And fewer still today.

Similar losses have occurred statewide, so much so that waters that once were spread across broad landscapes and filtered through wetlands and shallow lakes into aquifers far underground now in many cases are confined to infinite lattices of polluted ditches and rivers.

As bad, levels of these waterways often jump substantially following rainfalls, preventing native aquatic vegetation from taking hold.

One outcome: Minnesota was once duck-rich. Now it's duck-poor.

Another outcome: Some southern Minnesota farmers and other homeowners can't drink from their wells because the water is overloaded with nitrates.

Recognizing the clear and present danger this combination of environmental problems represents to the state, Gov. Mark Dayton two years ago guided through the Legislature a ditch- and stream-buffer law intended to slow soil and chemical runoff into state waterways.

Some farmers and all farm groups have pushed back ever since, particularly this legislative session, hoping the governor blinks and allows the law to be delayed or weakened.

Were this the only environmental problem the state faces, Minnesota conservation groups could be forgiven for their relatively sanguine session-by-session approach to defending state lands and waters — a tactic that too often sees them reacting meekly and disjointedly to legislative environmental threats, rather than presenting themselves muscularly at the Capitol, backed by Minnesotans' widely held, deep regard for the natural world.

Put another way, a rethinking of conservation and especially conservation politics is necessary if Minnesota 20 years and more from now is going to retain a semblance of the pristine lakes, rivers, woods and prairies that historically have made it a great place to live.

Reconsideration is necessary also so legislators who do support conservation, or who could be convinced to support conservation, or who possibly might be inclined to support conservation, have the public's backing.

Some thoughts:

• Vision required.

The lack of a well-conceived vision about what this state should look like decades from now is one reason that conservation approaches here have been so helter-skelter.

Some of this falls on the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other state agencies for not leading the charge. But as much, Minnesota's many conservation, environment and wildlife groups are to blame for not spending the time and money necessary to peer into the future and develop a vision for what they believe Minnesota should look like in, say, 2030 and beyond.

The DNR's prairie plan wins some credit here. But it is merely one piece of what should be a vastly more holistic look at the state, within which certain provisions and goals should be articulated. Dayton's buffer initiative would fit here — without which the state's waters never will be cleaned — as would a clearly delineated forest plan and specific wildlife population goals linked to equally specific habitat objectives, etc.

• Cohesion.

A statewide conservation vision should be articulated in a plan that is specific enough to have meaning, but general enough to gain widespread support among environment, conservation and wildlife groups.

Ultimately, the goal should be to sell the groups' conservation vision to the public at large, whose support — generally absent now, to the detriment of the state's resources — will be necessary to fend off environmental threats while also supporting, as necessary, habitat and other initiatives.

Historically, groups ranging from The Nature Conservancy to the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association to local rod and gun clubs have, with notable exceptions, acted individually or in small enclaves while articulating their conservation messages.

Lost in the process have been opportunities to coalesce broad public support behind a common conservation agenda and vision — the statewide campaign in support of the 2008 Legacy Amendment being a notable outlier.

• Spreading the word.

Finally, Minnesota conservation groups must pony up the money required to develop a sophisticated marketing and advertising campaign to sell their united conservation vision to the public.

Considering what's at stake — literally the soul of Minnesota — it is remarkable that the state's many otherwise sophisticated and successful conservation organizations essentially "market" themselves by word of mouth.

No wonder individuals and groups who seek to exploit state resources for their benefit wield so much power at the Capitol.

Again, exceptions exist. But most legislators fear no backlash by the public for attempting to rob, for instance, the Outdoor Heritage fund or Clean Water fund, or gut Dayton's buffer law.


Time is running short.

Either Minnesota conservation groups and others interested in the state's future join efforts behind a common vision that they sell to a public eager to help.

Or they stay the course, the result of which, legislative session by legislative session, they'll lose more than they win.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com