Conservation Minnesota

Almost-Forgotten Conservation Heroes

He’s almost 20 feet tall and he’s one of northern Minnesota’s tourist attractions.  His name is Paul Bunyan and he stands proudly beside the 23-foot-long Babe the Blue Ox in Bemidji.

A titan of North Woods lore from Minnesota to Michigan and beyond, Paul commemorates the colorful (if brief) heyday of the lumberjack, a guy whose appetite for work rivaled his appetite for food.  He would fell giant pine after giant pine while consuming monumental meals and singing cheerful tunes.  He towers proudly over Bemidji and our imaginations, and he’s unforgettable.

What tends to be forgotten is the dark side of Paul’s legacy – the flattening of Minnesota’s north woods without thought for the future.  Although not the fault of Paul or his real-life counterparts, the unsustainable logging of white pine and hardwoods in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries cost the state economically for several generations.  It also cost hundreds of Minnesotans their lives in murderous forest fires that exploded from the slash left behind by timber companies who abandoned their land after stripping it of marketable wood.

The damage didn’t heal by itself.  The vision and work of men and women were required. But we don’t build statues to commemorate them.  Why not?

Maybe for the same reason that newspapers and TV emphasize catastrophes and violence over other news.  Rebuilding isn’t as dramatic as destroying – even when the people who do the rebuilding are as colorful as many Paul Bunyans.

One conservation hero whose name doesn’t roll off the tongues of many Minnesotans is Christopher Columbus Andrews.  A brigadier general in the Union Army during the Civil War, Andrews became a champion of scientific forestry in the late 19th Century.  He ultimately became Minnesota State Forestry Commissioner, and presided over the state-sponsored development of a system of carefully-managed forest reserves that today support both timber harvest and scenic recreation, and will do so for centuries if conservation policies persist.

Like many other early conservationists, C.C. Andrews was at times dismissed as a crank.  Many politicians of the age thought the state had no business managing land for future generations or considered it futile. They also understood that the political benefits from scientific conservation history wouldn’t accrue until long after they left office. Fighting them took persistence, casting Andrews and allies as nags and pests who wouldn’t stop making their point.

Good thing they didn’t.  In 2011, the Minnesota DNR celebrated the 100th anniversary of its state forestry division.  Today, there are 58 state forests comprising 3.9 million acres of public land.

Andrews’ memory is preserved better than that of most Minnesota conservationists.  A 7,700-acre state forest bears his name .  But even so, he’s a footnote to Paul Bunyan and Babe.

How many even more obscure men and women contributed to Minnesota’s conservation and environmental comeback?  Who are they?  And isn’t it time we built monuments to them – even a museum – or educated our children about them?

They have at least as much to tell us as the legends of the lumberjacks.

About Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey is a resident of Rosemount and author of three books on environmental subjects. He formerly served as Conservation Minnesota’s communications director.

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Lyn says:

I would like to Email a question about wetlands in Michigan. Would you please pass on my request to Mr. Dempsey? Thank you.