Why Minnesota Can't Have Nice Things

In Minnesota’s Lakes Country, what we sometimes call “Up North,” the people have various degrees of knowledge of the land and its wildlife. Cabin people and campers visit briefly and may learn in detail the workings of a particular lake or patch of forest, but are usually poorly informed of the true nature of the landscape. People with “lake homes” (seasonally used cabins on steroids owned by people who live elsewhere) may spend more time in Lakes Country but actually know less about it than campers might because having central heating and air conditioning, a paved driveway, and big-ass SUV tends to isolate one from Nature’s tooth and claw, as it were, even if one spends more time than others in proximity to the wild lands. People who live year round in Lakes Country would be expected to have the best understanding of the landscape on which they live, but knowledge does not really seep into one’s brain from mere propinquity (well, sure, maybe a little) and as skeptics we know that many people over-estimate the value and extent of their own knowledge and understanding that comes from categorical association and undervalue the importance of purposeful learning and research.

The thing is, landcapes by their nature often bias human understanding, especially forested landscapes. Here is an example. Beyond the fringe of forest flanking a typical road is a lot more marsh and bogland, and for that matter, lake surface, than the average visitor can even see, and thus, more than she or he realizes. Across all of lake country, about 50% of the land is covered with lake surface or some sort of wetland (marshland in forest being the most common) but within lakes country this is unevenly distributed so there is much more than this percentage in some areas. This semi-randomly chosen satellite view of a part of Cass County that I’m pretty familiar with demonstrates this phenomenon nicely:

A bit of Cass County, Minnesota, showing wetlands not visible form the road.

As you drive along the road shown here, you see woodland on either side. You don’t see the two lakes shown here from any point along the road and you don’t see any of the marsh flanking the river. The road actually follows along the river for about a half hour drive you never see it except at one point where it crosses, but even there the river is not labeled with a sign so it could be easily missed flowing under the small bridge. You see, the roads in northern Minnesota are placed to avoid the marshes and wetlands and, of course, the lakes, and conditions are good for the growth of trees along the roadside. Cabins are placed on high ground (usually), as are boat launches. You can drive up to Lakes Country with your boat in tow, launch it and spend the entire day on a lake, stay at a cabin for a night and go home without ever actually seeing a swamp or marsh up close and with the any wetland that comes within several hundred meters of you almost always screened by trees. If someone asked you how much marsh and how many bogs there are up in Lakes Country, you might quite honestly say “Some, I guess, but it is mostly forest. And, there are nice lakes. I caught a few 5 pound bass on one of those lakes just now!” You might be lying about the fish, but you would be telling what you think is the truth about the landscape. But you would be wrong.

People who either live in the north country or who hunt there may have a much better idea of the landscape, although I must say that hunters also use the roads I mentioned and rarely go that far from them to their blinds, so they may have a biased sense of the extent of wetlands. Of course, anyone who can read a map or interpret a satellite photo, or read a book or a website would know about the extensive wetlands. What I’m talking about here is what a person would come to think if all they did was observe the biased subsample of the world around them.

But knowledge isn’t just about what is there, the facts, the basis statistics, all that. It is also about how things work. For example, cormorants, a large-fish eating bird that literally swims underwater in pursuit of its piscine meals, have been “making a comeback” (meaning there are more and more of them now after an historical decline). There are scientists and wildlife managers who are not too concerned about the occasional cormorant flock nesting up on this or that lake, but the Outstaters who live in Lake Country generally dislike the predatory bird because they eat the fish we humans might otherwise catch. It looks like a simple case of interspecies competition. In such cases, when one of the species is humans, it often leads to emotional resentment and eventual local extinction because we humans tend to act like babies about these things, yet we are heavily armed. The truth is, a fish eating predator that only consumes fish in a narrow and small size range will increase the size of the fish humans catch (because the fish are also competing with each other for resources and space to grow!) so a certain amount of mid-range culling by birds is a good thing.

Also, wolves. Minnesota is the only one of the Lower 48 that has always had a native wolf population, although the Europeans and Euro-Americans that moved into Minnesota in the 19th and early 20th century did their best to exterminate them completely. There are plenty of people here in Minnesota that want to exterminate the wolves today. The wolves are regarded as dangerous because they have lost their “fear of man” and therefore can gobble us up. Plus they eat the deer, which we hunt. So, again, that interspecies competition thing pertains. The fact that more people are attacked by Otters (about once a year) than wolves (basically, never) and that most areas of the state have way too many deer does not seem to play into folk’s opinions about wolves any more than beneficial culling by fish eating birds plays into their attitudes about cormorants.

These are two of a larger set of misconceptions that the people who “should” know better seem to hold. There are other issues, such as management of each of the several invasive plant and animal species, shoreline management, runoff and erosion problems, building construction, land clearance, deer herd management, moose herd management, game birds, raptor conservation, etc., which we could discuss. There is a thread that follows through some of these misconceptions: competition for resources or, in this case, game. That may well be the primary explanation for people who should know better getting it wrong. But, there is another thread which one could argue is about as important; The DNR. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has scientists and managers tasked with managing both the state’s wildlife and the state’s hunting and fishing related resources (these are overlapping but slightly different things). Here is the rule of thumb that seems to apply: If the DNR says something, believe the opposite to be true. The reason I say this is because if you talk to a person who either lives in Lakes Country or spends a lot of time there, and the conversation gets to cormorants or wolves or anything else related to hunting, fishing, wildlife, wetlands, or lakes, you will will hear people tell you that the DNR’s position is X and the Lake Country resident’s position is Y. It is more than a little obvious. The role of the DNR’s understanding of things shapes the opinions of Lake Country denizens much like President Obama’s positions shapes GOP policy. Now, if the DNR came out and said “ok, we were wrong, let’s exterminate the wolves” that would not turn all these folks into tree-hugging wolf lovers, but I am pretty sure they would still find fault with the DNR’s policy, how it is implemented, or their data.

Let me be blunt. It is the case, I think, that the average Minnesotan who lives in or heavily uses the natural resources of the North Country holds a steady and predictable disdain for those very resources, and that is mainly why they don’t like the DNR. Northern Minnesotans want to “enjoy” the natural resources in a Libertarian fashion without interference from the “outside” (the DNR is seen as an outside force), even if they are destroying those resources at the same time. The role of DNR policy in anti-nature attitudes is not to direct people’s opinion, but to give it the specific details helpful to implement it. For example, at the moment, there are posses forming up as we speak to illegally hunt out wolf packs in certain areas where the DNR claims there are only wandering wolves, or at least, that is the stated intention of many. The residents claim that there are active packs living in these areas and the DNR says no, there are not. So, not liking wolves is one thing, but creating a detailed and disdainful program of dislike where you actually pull the trigger and kill something may require some direction and in the absence of knowledge (the average person living or frequently visiting the region can not know the distribution of the wolves or observe the dynamics of the fisheries in the absence of scientific methods and instruments) one can simply watch for direction, bizarro backwards direction, from the DNR. The DNR says there are no packs here, so we will go and find the packs and exterminate them before they exterminate us.

The average person living full or part time up north loves the idea of having a home or cabin on a remote piece of land, enjoys the clarity of the lakes, and in general appreciates the natural setting. But most land owners will only do what is well known as the “right thing” on their property if there is a serious chance of getting caught or if they are tricked into it by some county or state program to “encourage” landowners to wreck the lakes they live on less quickly. I would be very surprised if more than a few percent (to be safe, say, 10%) of the residential cabin or lake home properties in the Lakes Country have zero or near zero violations of code designed to protect the lakes and nearby natural landscape they are on. That is a guess, and I may be very wrong; the biases I suggest that mis-shape people’s understanding of the landscape may well pertain to my understanding of development in the region. Still, I’m sticking to my story as a testable hypothesis.

The human presence in northern Minnesota is ruining the lakes and the landscape, which were previously severely damaged by the unfettered cutting of trees by an out of control lumber industry. (The two largest cities in Minnesota are Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and they sit next to each other in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Those two counties combined are about 10% larger in land area than all the old growth, unlogged forest in Minnesota combined.) Very few acres of Minnesota is truly “wild” in that it has not been logged over, and the density of development around the thousands of lakes grows unchecked. People are building cabins that require a 100 foot or longer dock across marshland to reach water deep enough to put their noisy gas guzzling speedboat on lakes that are already pretty full of people. The lakes nearest the Twin Cities are, in some cases, continuous manicured lawn with suburban-style homes surrounding an increasingly turgid infilling body of water. The giant white pine, of which virtually none are left, provided along with brick the structure for the late industrial development in the regions’s cities. Urban wealth moved to the suburbs for all the usual reasons, and now two generations later the affluent leftovers of a period of growth and development have returned to take or sully what is left. And sometimes I think I’m the only person who sees this happening.


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The satellite picture is missing.

By John McKay (not verified) on 29 Aug 2012 #permalink

The presence of wolves may be a factor in the low incidence of chronic wasting disease in Minnesota.

Wolves are pretty good at culling wimpy animals that can't run very well.

By daedalus2u (not verified) on 29 Aug 2012 #permalink

Yeah, I think this is what people are afraid of, extending it to humans!

I'm not so familiar with the Minnesota Lakes Country, but I see similar things here in New Hampshire. People from down south (Boston or New York City) buy or build houses up here, and in some cases move up here permanently (parts of New Hampshire are within 30 miles of downtown Boston). It puts more and more strain on the local environment, as well as local infrastructure (our forests are also almost entirely secondary growth, and our roads also tend to avoid marshland to the extent possible). The townships that are bearing the brunt of this development get ever less pleasant to look at or drive through (never mind to live in). And most of these houses just have to come with suburban style lawns (though they frequently do keep some fragmented woodland).

At least we're not Florida, where this has been a problem ever since Flagler built his railroad. When I was growing up down there, you could still find beautiful spots, though it got harder and harder as developers moved in on those spots. My family bailed out in 1991, and I haven't been to Florida since then (nor do I have any desire to visit).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 29 Aug 2012 #permalink

Eric, ya, I'm reasonably well familiar with New England. New Hampshire is a lot like Minnesota but with somewhat bigger hills.

Surely those who relied on experience and naïve knowledge (ignoring the roads, in other words) would correctly describe the topography of the Lakes Country if asked? It's those who accept the results of research by past generations of surveyors, without attempting to understand those results, who are in trouble....

There's a whole sub-genre of 19th Century literature (Thomas Hardy and Lev Tolstoy to name but two) about this disconnect.

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 30 Aug 2012 #permalink

Greg here is something we both agree on. The wolf population is not even reaching pre 1900 levels and even if it was there are still more deer than wolves so it would be a null issue. The big push for this hunt is that people are seeing less deer than they used to, but cant figure out that it is not the wolves fault, but there own for over hunting. You can only have so many years that you take 11 deer and not expect the population numbers to dwindle. If the people would look at hunting pratices as the cause they would see they are at fault, and we as man can never be wrong right? The wolves self sustain population levles to coincide with food levels, they won't mate or self abort when food gets scarce. As to that point if you look at NTSB's number of deer strikes a year they continue to rise every year because the deer population keeps expanding. There were many areas that over hunting of deer was not aloud and there they are booming. Maybe instead of hunting wolves these people should look at the data and reevaluate there hunting practices.

By IraqVet99 (not verified) on 30 Aug 2012 #permalink