On Aug. 13, 1973, Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson was featured in a now iconic photo on the cover of Time magazine. He was young and handsome, dressed in a flannel shirt over a turtleneck, and he held a northern pike on a stringer. The headline was “The Good Life in Minnesota.”
That was the national image of the state: Pristine and abundant natural resources. Clean lakes and rivers. Clean government.
On Tuesday, Anderson, now 82 and a tad hard of hearing, stood at the back of the crowd of people protesting the elimination of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s citizens’ board, the lone avenue for regular folks to have a say in developments that might harm those treasured lakes and streams. The deal that killed real, hands-on democracy in Minnesota was done in the middle of the night by a handful of power brokers on both sides of the political spectrum.
Man, how things have changed. As this newspaper reported in April, half the lakes and rivers in southern Minnesota are now polluted much of the time, making them unsafe for swimming and fishing, something that will take two or three decades to reverse.
Once, moderate Republicans ran on fiscal conservatism and environmental protection because maintaining the natural resources that make us special was a shared value. Today, the DFL is complicit in a disastrous environmental bill that had as many blind turns as the Kinnickinnic River.
The culmination of the session’s attack on the environment was destruction of the citizens’ board, which wrote its own ending last summer when members voted for an environmental-impact statement (EIS) on a 9,000-head cow farm. The board members rightly agreed that the dairy farm’s impact on the region, from pollution to road use and water consumption, was large enough that the farm’s neighbors deserved to be heard.
The board’s final action Tuesday was to hear testimony on a wastewater collection system near a trout stream near Afton. For hours, residents were allowed to make their case for and against the facility. All day and into the evening — messy and tedious, but democracy nonetheless.
Though the board has rarely disagreed with MPCA staff on these issues, the pampered ag and mining industries were aghast that their unbridled growth could even be questioned by a bunch of regular Joes. Eliminating the board, without public discussion, would not only be delicious revenge, it would clear-cut the way for mining interests in the Iron Range, where the Legislature’s largest Bigfoot is said to live.
Things used to be different, said Anderson, who once even said the eulogy for a Republican foe. “I’m with them; I’m with the folks,” he said of the protesters.
Those folks would include Kathy DeBuhr, who got up at 3 a.m. to drive from Chokio to St. Paul. She lives with her family on a grain farm about a mile downwind from the proposed “megadairy,” and she’s thankful that the board’s decision to ask for an EIS at least meant that her son Mitchell’s graduation party was not disturbed by the smell from a new, mammoth farm.
DeBuhr, a nurse, had never been active in politics before she started occasional trips to hear board testimony over the proposed dairy farm. Her parents were farmers and her other son, John, is studying agriculture and aviation. “So, I’m not an animal hater.”
DeBuhr just believes that neighbors have a responsibility to be, well, neighborly, regardless of whether you have nine cows or 9,000, but especially when you have 9,000. She said she and other neighbors deserve to know whether the constant truck traffic will ruin the roads and whether the water needed for the massive operation will suck their common aquifer dry.
But the lack of transparency “is what bothers me most,” DeBuhr said. “The voices impacted the most by decisions want to be heard. The citizens’ board did just fine as long as they rubber-stamped every proposal.”
Now that the board is dead, “Who makes the decisions? I guess it’s some guy,” DeBuhr said.
Another farmer at the rally sees the attack on the citizens’ board as a kind of chess move called a “spite check,” which he explains as a move made simply to delay your opponent’s inevitable checkmate.
“It’s a futile reaction to what the legislative session failed to do,” said James Kanne, a sixth-generation farmer from Redwood Falls. “A spite check means you are weak and you know there will be another day.”
So, yes, Kanne is an optimist. He believes a different Legislature will ultimately resurrect the board once Minnesotans realize how this happened. He has to be optimistic, for his daughter and son-in-law, who are taking over his farm.
“I’m not a last-generation farmer,” Kanne said. “There are a lot of those and they don’t care because they are taking the cash and selling out. I can see my grandkids running around on the farm. You don’t get that with big ag.
“If we don’t have this board to come and talk to, they’ll see us in their barns,” Kanne said. “Because we are not going away.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin