New environmental coalition wants lawmakers to think long-term

Envision Minnesota
Envision Minnesota, a new group of prominent Minnesotans, is calling for a greater commitment to preserving the state's environment.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

Envision Minnesota got its start about six months ago. That's when the non-profit conservation group 1000 Friends of Minnesota began polling various business and civic leaders about the state's rapid population growth.

They wanted to find out if community leaders were concerned about the effects of growth on Minnesota's environment. They discovered that that many were concerned.

Economy will thrive
Jeff Heegaard with 1,000 Friends of Minnesota says if lawmakers clean up the state's water, protect wildlife and plants and create new energy sources, Minnesota's economy will thrive.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

So 1000 Friends of Minnesota formed Envision Minnesota and invited community leaders to help shape the group's agenda. They include former Governor Wendell Anderson, HealthPartners CEO Mary Brainard, attorney Mike Ciresi and businessman Tad Piper among others.

The group identified five environmental priorities: new energy sources, better planning for rapid growth and protections for wildlife and the state's natural heritage, a long-term program to clean up the state's waters, and a commitment from politicians to thoroughly assess the costs and benefits of protecting the environment.

"Our common objective is to elevate issues related to how we grow our environment and the future of our communities," says Jeff Heegaard, executive director of 1000 Friends of Minnesota. "But more importantly we've come together to spark a dialogue about the future of Minnesota and what legacy we want to leave our grandchildren."

The group is hoping environmental issues will figure prominently in the 2006 gubernatorial race. Envision Minnesota has invited all the major party gubernatorial candidates to a convention in St. Cloud this fall where they will be asked to share their vision for Minnesota's environment with citizens.

Trustees of the environment
Former Congressman Tim Penny says elected officials are trustees of the environment. He says lawmakers should not only protect the state's environmental assets, they should improve them.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

Former congressman Tim Penny, who is also a member of the group, says for too long politicians have been able to avoid dealing with environmental issues. "Except on the margins, sort of nibbling around the edges," says Penny, "this stuff just doesn't get through the process. The priority just isn't there as it is for other issues."

Penny says the citizens' convention in St. Cloud has two purposes: to inform Minnesotans about some of the state's most pressing growth-related issues and to stimulate public debate.

"We need to elevate this agenda in a way that creates a really serious dialogue among the electorate because if the voters start talking about this, the candidates will talk about this," says Penny.

One way the group hopes to engage lawmakers is by keeping the focus on the economy, according to David Foster, a former director with the United Steelworkers Union who now heads the "Blue-Green Alliance," a collaboration between the steelworkers union and the Sierra Club.

God's gifts
Rev. Bob Battle says God has given us gifts from the environment to feed and sustain us. He says we should only use what we need. He suggests Minnesotans cut back on their thirst for gas-guzzling cars.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

Foster says steelworkers decided to join forces with the Sierra Club on environmental issues because it makes economic sense. "Our union has come to recognize that we can't have jobs that will last in the 21st century if they're not developed and founded on sound environmental principles," says Foster.

He suspects other businesses will come to similar conclusions and start pushing lawmakers to lead more on the issue.

Envision Minnesota members say they don't have all the answers. Mainly they just want to get people talking about the environment.

But Rev. Bob Battle, also a member of the group, has his own vision of where Minnesotans could begin making some changes. "We might cut back in some of the gas guzzlers that we have. We might do some of the other things, don't take more fish than we need, don't take more hunting animals than we need. If you read that great book called the Bible, you will get a lot of good points on how to live on this earth together and not overuse it," says Battle.

Envision Minnesota is not alone in its desire to see a long-term strategy for the state's natural resources. In the past year other groups, including sporting organizations, have lobbied for dedicated, stable funding for the environment after several years of budget cuts.

Both the Minnesota House and Senate have passed different versions of a constitutional amendment dedicating funds to environmental and conservation programs. The two bills have different approaches to funding, which are yet to be resolved.

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