Environmental officials stop in St. Paul for listening tour

Participants in the Urban Wilderness Canoe Adventures program arrive at Harriet Island after canoeing from Hidden Falls on Wednesday, August 4, 2010. The program is an example of the kinds of efforts thought to be needed to engage young people in urban areas with the natural world.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Several Obama administration officials came on Wednesday to the Twin Cities for meetings designed to set a new national agenda for conservation.

They conducted a listening session, hearing from locals about how we can do a better job of taking care of the environment -- and how to get more Americans out and enjoying the outdoors.

The effort began last spring with a White House meeting. President Barack Obama directed leaders of various federal agencies to fan out to the hinterland and ask for advice on how to improve the government's performance on the environment.

It was a full day for the officials from Washington. The chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, deputies from the Agriculture and Interior Departments, and the top official at the Environmental Protection Agency met with tribal leaders in the morning. At noon they were on the banks of the Mississippi River near downtown St. Paul, greeting a flotilla of canoes paddled by city kids participating in an urban wilderness program.

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EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson spoke directly to the teenagers about the magic of the river.

"Doesn't everything look different from the water?" she said. "That's why we work to get you out here, because we know if you see it from that perspective it'll become part of you."

Reaching these kids was the whole point for Jackson and her colleagues. They want advice on how to get more people out enjoying the outdoors, and how to make sure the natural world will be intact for coming generations.

They came asking for ideas, and they got an earful. Four hundred people packed an auditorium at the University of Minnesota, and after a few speeches from politicians and an invited panel, the people stood up to talk.

Ron Stromstad, a waterfowl hunter, said the farm bill should be changed to provide more consistent policy aimed at creating better habitat. He said that the bill makes it easier for landowners to plow up virgin native prairie, while the Fish and Wildlife Service buys grassland easements from ranchers in these same areas, who agree not to plow up the prairie.

"That's one quick fix the administration can work on," Stromstad said.

Edina resident Paul Thompson complained that the meeting room was over-air-conditioned -- an all-too-frequent occurrence.

"We are addicted to a cold climate," Thompson said. "I think we have to invest in ceiling fans, turn off the air conditioners and get the kids used to a warming climate.

"I have a Frisbee club -- kids can't come unless they bring an adult and vice versa."

It's necessary to talk about the uncomfortable subject of race and class, said Karen Monahan, a local Sierra Club environmental justice advocate.

"Not everybody has a mom or dad to go out there and play Frisbee," Monahan said. "I think we need to look at the disproportionate impact. Who is using so much of these resources and who is carrying the burden?"

Another speaker, Ray Tricomo, told the officials they should urge Obama to move the country to an environmental ethic.

"We could employ millions restoring the environment," Tricomo said. "It's not the economy and we're not stupid. It's the environment and we are smart."

The visiting officials said they'd heard some good ideas and look forward to incorporating them in their report to Obama. The report is due in the fall.

Advocates hope it will amount to a new national policy on environmental conservation -- and that the president will champion it in the next couple of years.