New anthology fills gaps in Minnesota's environmental history
January 13, 2023
Minnesota has a rich environmental history, but when Chris Wells, an environmental historian at Macalester College, arrived in Minnesota in 2005, he discovered that many of the state’s vast number of environmental stories had yet to be written down. His colleague at Carleton College, George Vrtis, who arrived in Minnesota the following year, agreed. So the two embarked on a years-long effort to create a first-of-its-kind anthology called Nature’s Crossroads: The Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota that was published this month.
“We learned that the relationships between the Twin Cities and the rest of the state are incredibly powerful and reveal an extraordinary degree of environmental and cultural complexity. This extends to things like wheat and timber, which were cornerstones of the early Minnesota economy, but it also helps explain less obvious things, like the urge to head up north to the cabin and the complicated politics of the Iron Range,” said Wells.
Among the many fascinating historical tidbits the book examines include:
• Minnesota’s “Up North” culture has deep roots with surprising intentionality behind it, as the transformation of northern Minnesota from a landscape of stumplands and failed farms into a mecca for nature tourism reflected a deliberate effort by the state government to remake the economy of the North Woods.
• The origins of the Twin Cities bicycle culture go back to 1902. Well before most urban streets and rural roads were paved, residents of the Twin Cities had collectively built a network of nearly 200 miles of hard-surfaced bicycle trails.
• Before the advent of modern water treatment facilities, Saint Paul and Minneapolis unwittingly conducted a natural experiment between two very different types of municipal water systems, one of which produced far higher rates of communicable disease than the other.
• Since the emergence of the American environmental movement in the 1960s, Minnesota has been at the forefront of the nation’s struggle to embrace environmental initiatives and build a more sustainable society. This is evident in such signature developments as the creation of the Minnesota Pollution Control Authority in 1967, passage of the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act in 1975, and the establishment of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 1978.
• In the late 1960s and early 1970s, plans to create an entirely new, futuresque city in the middle of northern Minnesota (Minnesota Experimental City Authority) gained substantial funding and serious momentum, based on the idea that the new city could be a testing ground for advanced technologies designed to solve the era’s worst urban environmental problems. Ironically, it failed because people objected to it on environmental grounds.
• The modern environmental justice movement can be traced to the conflicts around the Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Station, which stands adjacent to the Prairie Island Indian Community on a small island in the middle of the Mississippi River. This tension became a flashpoint in long-running national anti-nuclear battles from the 1970s through the 1990s.
• To guarantee a more even flow of water to their mills, Minneapolis millers wooed the federal government to build a series of dams in the 1880s in the Headwaters region of the Mississippi River, wreaking significant damage on the Anishinaabe communities who lived there.
• The American Indian Movement, which was founded in Minneapolis in 1968, originally formed to protest urban environmental problems after federal relocation policies moved large numbers of Native Americans from reservations to urban slums in the 1950s and 1960s.
• The largest industrial employer in Saint Paul in the early 20th Century was the Crex Carpet Company, which wove its carpets from wild wiregrass harvested from the vast marshlands of western Wisconsin.
• In the 1980s, in an effort to address the issue of acid rain, Minnesota became the only state in the country to adopt and develop an acid deposition standard, despite opposition from coal and other energy interests.
“Environmental history highlights the ways that we’re bound together, both in ways that we can see and also in ways that are largely invisible unless you know where to look. We’re all living inside the same ecosystems, but all too often we’re not aware of the ways that we depend on them or the ways we remake them as we go about our everyday lives,” said Wells. For more context and stories, check out this Q&A.