Mary Gibbs: Thoughtful, Careful, and Courageous


Minnesota was a pioneer in our nation with the creation of a state park system to preserve the jewels of our landscape for the enjoyment of all its citizens.  This truly novel idea in the late 1800s came from leaders like Teddy Roosevelt with the intent to protect, in their natural state, some of our most unique places for future generations.  The idea was directly contrary to the dominating ethos of western expansion and modern industrialism that was at its zenith in 1903 and which had at its center the exploitation of our natural resources.  As a result of that exploitation, most of Minnesota’s forests had been systematically clear-cut by then with few pristine places left where one could walk through the natural cathedral of the great white pines.  One of those places still remaining was around the source of the Mississippi: Lake Itasca.

Jacob V. Brower was a well-connected Minnesota politician who also fashioned himself a bit of an explorer.  He led a survey team to Lake Itasca in the 1880s to finally settle the dispute about the true source of the Mississippi.  Upon his return, he led a spirited and successful campaign to designate Lake Itasca as Minnesota’s first state park and one of the first such parks in the nation.  The 1891 bill authorizing the park barely passed — by one vote.  The exploitation mentality was being challenged, but it was still very much alive and hungry for more natural resources of this region.

Brower served as the first superintendent of the state park and had to work tirelessly to protect it from logging exploitation.  The second superintendent starting at the turn of the century was Brower’s handpicked successor J. P. Gibbs.  He worked closely with his young daughter, Mary Gibbs, to protect the park in the face of the continued apathy of the government with regard to logging. State officials had been continually turning a blind eye to loggers as they cut timber roads through the park.  Loggers built a dam on the Mississippi River just downstream from Itasca so they could fill up the lake with downed timber to make it easier to float them down to the mills. Finally with pressure from Gibbs and others, the Legislature passed a law protecting the park from flooding by logging dams in 1903.

Unfortunately, J. P. Gibbs passed away during this crucial time, and out of respect for his service, young 24-year-old Mary Gibbs was given the post.  She was the first woman ever to be appointed a superintendent of a state park in the nation. The pro-logging state officials also thought she would be a pushover and unable to enforce the 1903 flooding law.  What the politicians in St. Paul didn’t know was that Mary Gibbs had a little fire in her soul.  When the lumber companies raised the dam so high that it was flooding the park and doing damage, she served notice to the lumber company that she would not allow it.  After being rebuffed twice at the site of the dam by armed lumbermen, Mary returned with the sheriff and a warrant to lower the dam as required by law.

Lumberman M. A. Woods was ordered to protect the levers that kept the dam sluice gates raised.  The rifle-toting lumberjack declared to the sheriff, “I’ll shoot anyone who puts a hand on those levers.”  The sheriff timidly returned the warrant to Gibbs.  One can easily imagine the steely glare given by young Gibbs as she declared, “I will put my hand there, and you will not shoot it off either.”  The gun-toting lumberjacks had met their match that day in the determined Mary Gibbs as she marched on top of the dam to open the gate with the help of some inspired bystanders.  That day the Mississippi flowed free and the park was saved.  Well . . . maybe not for long.

The loud protests of the lumber barons quickly proceeded through the court system all the way to St. Paul.  To their surprise, Ms. Gibbs found a defender in the Attorney General of Minnesota, Wallace B. Douglas, when he supported the legality of her warrant and her actions on the dam.  Lumber barons then turned to the governor, who made his wealth as a builder of riverboats for the purpose of towing the barons’ logs down the Mississippi River.  He promptly had Mrs. Gibbs replaced by a superintendent who was a little less strident about lumber moving through the park.

Despite her dismissal, Mary Gibbs helped build the momentum for a change in ethics in natural resource management.  This momentum grew, and in only a few decades it was well established that state forests were for logging and state parks were to be preserved in their natural state.  Because of that momentum, many of the old-growth pine trees survived.  To commemorate Mary Gibbs’ courage and commitment to the preservation of Itasca, the visitor center at the park was recently named in her honor.  Also, the oldest lodge in the park bears the name of Douglas in honor of the Attorney General who sided with the gutsy young conservationist.

You would think some 110 years later we would have the bully tactics of self-interest industry barons pretty well figured out, but they still persist to this day. Recently the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) released a simple study doing a simple cost benefit analysis of a bottle deposit recycling program in Minnesota. Our neighboring states of Iowa and Michigan have had a similar program that has shown recycling rates in the neighborhood of 90% for bottle containers. Minnesota’s recycling rate lingers at near 45% for pop cans, beer bottles and plastic containers.

It was 7 years ago that the state of Minnesota was persuaded by the beverage industry that they could increase recycling voluntarily. Minnesota set a modest goal of 80%. Since then the industry has expended little effort and we’ve seen little change. So when the MPCA released a draft report showing that a bottle deposit program would get Minnesota close to 90% recycling rate for containers, you would think the beverage industry would have quietly hid in shame from their failure. Apparently they did not learn from the mistake of Lumberman M. A. Woods.

Rather than come up with solutions, they have spent the last couple weeks in full out attack mode, blasting elements of the report as if somehow it is the final position of the state. Conservation Minnesota, the advocates for recycling and the MPCA are diligently looking at ideas and exploring options to do things the Minnesota way. As Minnesotans, we are being thoughtful, careful and courageous like Mary Gibbs.

If we are serious about recycling in the state, we need to stop looking to the industry for leadership. This industry is creating $200 million in additional landfill costs annually to the taxpayers of Minnesota while screaming the end of the world if they have to come up with $29 million to support a recycling program that works as projected by the report. They conveniently ignore the fact that a recycling refund program would result in $285 million in new recycled products annually and over 1000 permanent long-term jobs.

We would encourage you to join Conservation Minnesota as we work diligently to create a Minnesota recycling program that really works for all of Minnesota. I think Mary Gibbs would approve.

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