Is No Bad News the Best We Can Do?

Lost “leggins, mockinsons, socks, etc…. no trivial misfortune.”

Lt. Zebulon Pike

1805

In 1805, long before young Lt. Zebulon Pike discovered the “peak” which bears his name near Colorado Springs, he was assigned his first major expedition north up the Mississippi from St. Louis to lay claim to the territory from the St. Peter’s River (now known as the Minnesota River) to the source of the Mississippi.  He left with a detachment of 19 men in August, and by September had already acquired the parcel of land from the Dakota tribes that would later become Fort Snelling.  The island below Fort Snelling still bears his name.

He pressed on to Little Falls in late October where he erected a temporary fort.  Not content to wait out the winter and with a desire to confront some of the British traders that were scattered out across northern Minnesota trading with the many different Ojibwa tribes, he set out on foot in December with a small detachment of his men.  Nearly one month later, after staggering through miserably cold and wet weather during which he penned the above journal entry, he and his men stumbled nearly frozen to death through the open gate of the Big Sandy Lake British Northwest Company stockade.  Pike could barely stand on his swollen and frozen feet.

Despite being American soldiers visiting the British fur trading post in an unforgiving wilderness with no meaningful exit strategy, Pike forcefully informed the unsuspecting British hosts that the fort was now on American soil. He had the audacity to shoot the Union Jack off the flagpole and replace it with the American flag.  Pike boldly declared to the superintendent that he was required to pay duty to the United States of America.

Fortunately for Pike and his men the British superintendent showed great patience, in part because they knew they were on American soil. As a result the Americans were treated with great hospitality.  Pike recorded in his journal that the trading post was very civilized with all the comforts of a modern residence of the East.

Surely after Pike left the hospitable fort and the surprised British agents, the old Union Jack went back up on the flagpole. The British agents never paid any duty for quite some time.  American dominance over this region was not established until Fort Snelling was built some 15 years later on the very location that Pike had the foresight to acquire. Unlike the grand excursion of Lewis and Clark, the best that could be said about Pike’s expedition to Minnesota is that even though it was ugly nothing bad happened. This is probably the reason why it is not a well-known piece of Minnesota history.

The 2012 legislative session will be little known for its achievements in the conservation area. Like Pike’s expedition to Minnesota, the best that can be said about this legislative session is that it has been ugly with little bad happening. For example, this week the legislature, under the guise of improving funding for public education, passed legislation that could harm conservation funding. At Minnesota’s statehood we were granted several parcels of land from the federal government for the purpose of funding public education. These lands are essentially protected by a legal trust; as a result they are known as the School Trust Fund Lands.

Most of this land was sold during the pioneer days and the proceeds placed in a trust whose interest helps fund public education. There are several remaining parcels in northern Minnesota that were never sold and are leased for timber and mining purposes with the proceeds of these leases going to the trust. It has been the contention of some that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has not managed these lands for maximum profits. The legislature has adopted a bill that does nothing bad now, but could in the future pressure the DNR to purchase these lands with “non-general fund” resources. What this means is that the legislature wants the Legacy funds and environmental lottery money to buy land from itself, essentially suggesting raids on these dedicated environmental funds meant to acquire critical habitat and sensitive lands and use the money to backfill cuts and budget gimmicks in the education area.  Thanks to leadership from Commissioner Landwehr of the DNR, this bad idea for raiding conservation dollars for the school trust fund did not turn out as bad as it could have been.

There is a good chance that the hunting and fishing license increases could be successful this session, but again this is nothing to get too excited about. Essentially the legislature has not appropriately invested in the Game and Fish Fund, and as a result without these fee increases the existing enforcement and habitat activities of the fund could be jeopardized soon. It is hard to claim much victory when all you are doing is keeping bad things from happening.

This is also the case in most environment provisions under consideration at the legislature in 2012. Most of the proposals do more to promote pollution and discourage oversight. This is a far cry from the beginning of the Pawlenty administration 8 years ago. It was there that the Republican governor with the Republican-controlled House cast a vision of renewable energy and a clean water legacy. These national leading environmental initiatives were adopted. So far there has been little vision from the Dayton administration on how to protect our great outdoors and as a result the best that we can report from this legislation is that so far nothing really bad has happened. Certainly nothing that should go down in history.

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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