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Column: Whether born or made, conservation leaders sorely lacking in Minnesota

It's true that the land- and water-stewardship record of Gov. Tim Walz's predecessor, Gov. Mark Dayton, has been a tough act to follow. But even by the low conservation bar set by some previous

In a debate at Game Fair leading up to the 2018 election, DFLer Tim Walz and Republican Jeff Johnson offered competing conservation viewpoints. Walz was elected.
Miguel Otarola / Minneapolis Star Tribune / TNS
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Numerous studies have shown that certain people naturally possess leadership qualities, while others who lack these native skills can be taught how to lead.

The contrary belief that leaders are born, not made, dates to the 1840s, when Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish philosopher, advanced the "great man theory," which suggests a select number of individuals are intrinsically blessed with qualities such as vision, honesty, assertiveness, commitment, empathy and a willingness to take risks.

These people are capable of leveraging these qualities, the theory goes, when opportunities arise, to lead people toward a common goal — Gen. William T. Sherman's role in winning the Civil War, for example — or, as commonly, toward a higher plane of the human condition, e.g., in the case of the Civil War, the end of slavery.

Carlyle believed the course of human history is shaped by these individuals.

Yet no less an acknowledged American sports leader than legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi believed leaders can be cultivated. "Leaders aren't born," Lombardi would say, "they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work."


At issue in this space today is a subset of American leadership — conservation leadership, a concept far less studied than leadership per se, but one no less important. Google, for example, "climate, changing" and "habitat, disappearing."

Yet conservation leadership is a skill rarely studied, and — in Minnesota, as throughout the nation — even more rarely practiced.

In a recent paper, Brett Bruyere of Colorado State University reported that a search for the word "leadership" in the Web of Science database came up with more than 35,000 peer-reviewed articles. Yet a search for "conservation leadership" received only 60 hits.

Which — if Minnesota is indicative of the rest of the nation, and it probably is — makes sense. Because, while the concept of conservation leadership is recognized and even taught by some Minnesota state agencies — the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, for example — and a few nonprofits, conservation leadership historically has been largely absent in the state's day-to-day politics and policy-making.

In fact, Minnesota's conservation history suggests that Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher, was ahead of his time.

Since 1858, when Minnesota joined the Union, whether in conflicts over the state's southeast forests, tall grass prairies or northern border waters, conservation leaders who spearheaded protection of these areas rose to prominence organically, without formal training.

Without these conservation forerunners — including largely forgotten Minnesotans such as Marshall Lowe, a Murray County pioneer who fought the drainage of Bear Lake in the late 1800s, and larger-than-life figures such as Sigurd Olson, who led efforts to protect the BWCA — those resources might have been lost or further diminished.

All of which is preamble to the news of the day, that Gov. Tim Walz has declined to appear at Game Fair (due to scheduling conflicts, he says) to debate his primary gubernatorial opponent, Scott Jensen, about conservation and related issues.


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Granted, if the past is prologue, the debate wouldn't make or break anyone's political career. In 2018, Walz faced off against his then-opponent for the state house, Jeff Johnson, in a Game Fair debate, and conservationists who attended were 1) unimpressed by Johnson, who seemed largely clueless about subjects discussed, and 2) hopeful that Walz's better performance would bear fruit if he were elected.

Walz was elected. But his first term has born little, if any, conservation bounty.

It's true that the land- and water-stewardship record of his predecessor, Gov. Mark Dayton, has been a tough act to follow. But even by the low conservation bar set by some previous Minnesota governors — see Ventura, Jesse — Walz has been a letdown. Not least because, most recently, he failed to line-item-veto the handful of projects that Republicans schemed into the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund appropriation, absent consent or even review by the fund's overseer, the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources.

It should be obvious to Minnesota politicians, as it is to most everyone else, that the state's lands, waters and wildlife continue to be assaulted by us — everyone — as manifested most often by the grinding machinery of agriculture, development and an ever-increasing human population.

Absent bold, visionary conservation leadership to mitigate these threats — and losses — a bleaker quality of life awaits future generations of Minnesotans.

In a more perfect world, or at least a more hopeful one, a Minnesota governor proud of his or her conservation achievements would welcome opportunities to celebrate them, especially at a public event such as Game Fair, which attracts tens of thousands of hunters, anglers, hikers, boaters, paddlers — and voters.

Additionally, sharing a vision for a future in which Minnesotans can continue to enjoy clean water — both surface and sub-surface — as well as healthy forests, a varied farmland landscape and abundant wildlife should be an opportunity any true conservation leader would welcome, in part to reassure residents, but more importantly to inspire them.

It doesn't help that Minnesota legislators these days are mostly an unserious bunch regarding the environment. And much of the voting public is indifferent to these issues or otherwise distracted.


Which is why leadership at the top is and always has been most important.

Alexander the Great, who had the benefit of being tutored until he was 16 by Aristotle, and who between the ages of 20 and 30 was undefeated in battle while amassing one of the largest empires to that point in history, had a saying.

"I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep. I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion."

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