Big difference between conservative and conservationist

Forrest Johnson

There's a big difference between a conservative and a conservationist. That much is playing out in the Minnesota Legislature in 2017. Conservatives in Minnesota have decided to team up with the Trumpsters and other non-believers in environmental stewardship to declare our fair state a pollution friendly place where large corporate interests are welcome to despoil the landscape and earn a profit while doing so.

Regulations protecting the water, land and air are all facing politicians eager to unwind decades of progress toward stewardship. These politicians of the New Conservative Neanderthal Party persuasion, formerly the Republicans, are eager to falsely pronounce their allegiance to the common good while they promote ways to reduce access to public lands and roll back efforts to care for the planet.

As I write laws are being written to roll back 50-foot waterway buffer legislation already enacted but held in a sort of legislative limbo because corporate tenant farmers in the state are whining that they can't help it if they are the direct cause of the farmland runoff pollution that has impaired over 95 percent of the waters in western and southern Minnesota farm country. The Farm Bureau and the Minnesota Corn Producers and the soybean farmers just can't help it that that their monoculture farming methods need so many chemicals to do the job right for America.

Forget that the family farm has fallen by the wayside in the ongoing industrialization of farming. Forget that farmsteads that used to keep rural communities alive are gone as the steady progress of industrial farming has consumed the landscape of farm country.
Not to mention that the corporate tenant farmers who are left seem to be at the mercy of their own chemically induced overproduction. With the massive harvests of the past few years prices have dwindled and left many a mostly conservative farmer looking at bleak prospects come harvest time. Just a few years ago nearly every major producer jumped at high commodity prices by tilling nearly any acre they could find to extend their profits. A worldwide glut now leaves them scrambling to refinance lands and equipment and puts a premium on the federal subsidies and crop insurance programs needed to keep the operation from bankruptcy.

Not to mention that many, if not most, of the big farmers have forgotten their Democratic-Farmer-Labor roots and have jumped giddily to the right wing. Yes, farm country is no longer that place where farmers created cooperatives to have a say with Big Wheat and King Corn. Nope, over the last decades they drank the kool aid and now just can't pry themselves from the clutches of corporate/industrial farming methods and economies.

In other news, state legislators of the New Conservative Neanderthal Party (NCNP) persuasion are listening to shortsighted northern constituents who whine that public lands in their counties are bad for the tax base (wrong). Too much public land is bad they imply. The NCNP House Legacy bill has language that would allow counties to set policies for no-net-gain of public lands. In other words, the Department of Natural Resources would be required to sell state lands to make up for any public land protection gains.

In my other life as editor of the Lake County News-Chronicle I argued that such notions of loss in the land base were nonsensical. Lake County is about 84 percent public land, which nearly all citizens within those borders enjoy immensely. Where else can you simply head out into the miles of unfettered wilds without seeing a no trespassing sign? People get a little confused by the politics behind the NCNP gripes about the tax implications of public spaces but when you ask people one on one if they think having a million acres or more of wide open public spaces is a good or bad thing not too many complain about it at all.

After a quick visit to the auditors office to look at the numbers those many years ago I came up with a pretty simply outline to counter the public land/tax base loss argument. In addition to receiving payment in lieu of taxes dollars for state and federal lands, Lake County still had a private tax base of nearly 250,000 acres, bigger than Hennepin and Ramsey counties. There were 11,000 people in this space and it turned out that in most years plenty of tax revenue was available to take care of the needs of the county and its citizens, regardless of all the public land.

The public lands, which include state parks, Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, were priceless.  
Lake County and the DNR long ago created a gentleman's agreement to try to keep things even steven when the Tettegouche State Park expansion was being proposed. The DNR went along simply to keep the peace and not create an appearance of the government acting as Big Brother. Now the state legislature wants to get into the act to force the DNR and land conservation groups to see that there are consequences in protecting landscapes.

Lake County held a land sale of tax forfeit lands a few years ago that netted the county some big jing. Five forty acre parcels around our homestead were sold in addition to others around the county. Quite a few folks in the neighborhood found their trails and access to other public lands blocked by no trespassing signs. One nearby 40-acre parcel on a ridge overlooking Lake Superior sold for nearly $400,000. The problem with selling public lands is usually that it goes to the bidder with the bucks. A young family hoping for a place in the woods? An elderly couple of fixed-income hoping to retire in the bush or on a lake? Money puts most properties out of reach for the medium income dweller and a no trespassing sign goes up on lands that were formerly used by many.

Believe me, I know.
There's a big difference between a conservative and a conservationist.