“Sig” Award for the 2014 Conservation Champion in the Legislature: Rep. Ryan Winkler

“So often we are tempted to be ashamed of sentiment; at my age I’m no longer ashamed. I think we do not wear our sentiments on our sleeves as often as we should. We seldom pay tribute when it should be paid.”
Sigurd F. Olson
October 1963

headshot-Ryan-Winkler-44BIn 1963 many of the activists within the National Park Association and the National Park Service were feeling extremely downcast due to many recent negative policy changes being forced upon the Park Service. It seemed to them at the time that a comprehensive wilderness preservation policy within the United States was a fool’s errand, but that tide would soon turn.

Many would credit Minnesota’s own Sigurd Olson with reviving the spirit of the demoralized movement in a speech he gave at the October 1963 conference of the National Park Association. This teacher from Ely, Minnesota, played a critical role in the preservation of the BWCAW and the creation of Voyageur’s National Park, Minnesota’s only national park. In addition to being a best-selling author, he served as president of the Wilderness Society and the National Parks Association.

In his role with the National Park Association, he gave a speech during the National Park Service planning sessions praising the efforts of the demoralized Park Service field staff. It was this 20-minute speech that many would later point to as reviving the morale of the Park Service employees. In it he paid tribute to their commitment to protecting and restoring some of our critical outdoor treasures.

Making it more significant was the fact that less than a year later on September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson would sign the comprehensive Wilderness Act they thought impossible less than a year earlier. The Act created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States and set in motion the protection of over 9 million acres of federal land including Minnesota’s BWCAW.

In the same vein as the 1963 speech by Olson, it has been the annual tradition of this blog to give the “Sig” award, named in honor of Sigurd Olson, to an outstanding environmental champion at the legislature. Like the demoralized Park Service employees, Minnesota’s advocates for a toxic free environment for Minnesota children are feeling a little demoralized at the end of the 2014 session. Nonetheless, we are very optimistic for a positive result in the future due in no small part to this year’s “Sig” Environmental Champion Award winner, Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley).

This year Conservation Minnesota actively supported a comprehensive toxic chemical reporting statute known as the Toxic Free Kids Act (TFKA) authored in the House by Rep. Winkler. This proposal would require manufacturers of products marketed for children to notify the state when they use one of the 9 most dangerous toxic chemicals as determined by the Minnesota Department of Health. These are chemicals like lead, mercury and BPA that have been well documented to be extremely dangerous to the healthy development of children. Most Minnesotans agree that providing good information to health officials and parents about toxic chemicals in products being marketed for our children is simply common sense.

TFKA was the last issue to be addressed on the last major bill of the 2014 session. Unfortunately, corporate lobbyists used extraordinary effort to defeat TFKA as the session ground to a halt. Under the urging of the Republican caucus in the House and the DFL Senate leadership, TFKA was not included in the final Supplemental Budget Bill.

Despite his demoralizing setback, advocates for getting these extremely dangerous toxic chemicals out of the marketplace were reenergized by the hard work of Rep. Winkler. He was tireless throughout the session, reviving the initiative on several occasions after the corporate lobbyists thought they had defeated it. Winkler received strong assistance from the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Chair Jean Wagenius, Speaker Paul Thissen and Gov. Mark Dayton, along with his staff.

Sig would’ve been proud and my guess he would be a little sentimental about a solid effort put in by Rep. Winkler. Like the wilderness advocates a half-century ago, we look for great things to happen next year, and we are in good hands with Rep. Winkler leading this issue.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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