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Anne Kapuscinski

Anne Kapuscinski, a professor of fisheries, wildlife, and conservation, is one of the principal researchers in the University's Sustainability Initiative.

Growing greener

The U's sustainability initiative seeks to protect and conserve Minnesota's environment and way of life

By Deane Morrison

June 29, 2007

The image is etched indelibly into the minds of Minnesotans: then-Gov. Wendell Anderson on the cover of Time, holding a freshly caught northern pike. "The Good Life in Minnesota," trumpeted the magazine. But for how long? If its lake home gets polluted, the northern could disappear; so, too, could the majestic moose, as development gobbles up its forest habitat. To prevent these and similar scenarios, the University is helping Minnesotans envision and create a future where their state's abundant natural resources are protected and life can continue to be good. The effort is a major thrust of the U's Sustainability Initiative, which also includes research on topics like energy use, housing, transportation, and food and fiber production. The initiative aims to educate students, teachers, and journalists, and, eventually, the whole public, with the ultimate goal of pointing the state toward a brighter future. "We're at a turning point in history," says Kris Johnson, program coordinator for the initiative. "We want to know what the right thing to do is."

Fast-forward to 2050

To design the future, one must first imagine it. Launched in summer 2004, the initiative has already convened six workshops, in collaboration with the University's Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, to help Minnesotans envision how life might be in the year 2050--and not just how they'd like it to be. "One scenario might be that all the northern forests are totally fragmented by second homes," says Peter Reich, Regents Professor of forest resources and a leader of the initiative. "Another would be that such second home development is constrained and clustered. If we recognize as a state that there are consequences to unfettered second home and retirement home development in our most natural forest lands--such as lots of money for fire protection, roads, sewers, and phones--we could in theory decide how to manage it, for example, by incentives [not to develop land] and zoning.

"Minnesota is finally developed enough that every Minnesotan can see the effects of human domination of the environment, such as more people on trails," says Kapuscinski.

"The question is, 'What are the possible futures, and how do we change our habits as individuals and communities so we don't end up with [undesirable consequences]?'" With that in mind, the state's Legislative and Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) has tapped the expertise of people in the initiative and the U's new Institute on the Environment (IonE) for help in conserving and preserving natural resources. A research team of 47 U faculty plus people from the private sector will supply research information to help LCCMR and the state as a whole take better care of the environment.

Milestones at Morris

The University of Minnesota, Morris has led the University in projects to improve environmental stewardship. Besides receiving a major portion of its energy from a wind turbine at the U's nearby West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC), UMM in early June received permission from the Board of Regents to construct a biomass plant. Morris Chancellor Jacqueline Johnson was among the more than 250 college and university presidents who pledged in mid-June to reduce and eventually eliminate their campuses' contributions to greenhouse warming. Look for future news on UMM's environmental leadership in these pages.

"In the management of the environment there are separate [agencies] for water, air, soil, agriculture, and so on," says Anne Kapuscinski, an initiative leader and professor of fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology. The idea, she says, is to take an integrated approach to problems. For example: "When people practice agriculture or have a home on a lake shore, they may fertilize the lawn or pull up cattails." As chemical nutrients, unimpeded by hungry cattails, run off into the water, walleye and northerns may give way to bass and panfish, then carp and bullheads. And as climate change raises lake temperatures, this effect could work in synchrony with pollution. But different sectors of government deal with water pollution, fisheries, and agriculture. "The impact cuts across sectors. We need an analysis to show how nutrient pollution will affect fish and interact with climate change," Kapuscinski says. Much of that job falls to Laura Schmidt, a postdoctoral associate. Using data on scientific, economic, and other factors, she is analyzing how they could all interact to produce different patterns of land use, pollution, impact on plants and animals, an so forth. Trends analysis is part of her work. "It's most useful for teasing out linkages, such as those among nitrogen fertilizer, fish, development, and temperature increases, and seeing the implications of different actions," she says. But, cautions Johnson, it can give "a false sense of confidence that you know where you're going." Therefore, the analysis is geared toward identifying multiple possible futures so that, as Kapuscinski says, "we have a chance of getting it right."

Planting the seeds

Of course, not much will happen unless people's attitudes change and the next generation learns to think in terms of the environmental and social consequences their actions will have. But the problem isn't just individuals.

A greener UMTC

Some sustainable practices on the Twin Cities campus:

>University Dining Services (UDS) has committed to serving locally grown and produced food. The Bistro in the Humphrey Institute features such food all the time. Also, UDS supplies used deep-fat fryer oil from its residential restaurants to a vendor; it is then recycled into biodiesel fuel. In 2006 Centennial Hall supplied 12,000 gallons.

>The Molecular and Cellular Biology Building is on track to reduce its energy bill by $250,000, or more than 15 percent.

>Oat hulls now supply three percent of the steam heating for the Twin Cities campus.

>Storm water on the St. Paul campus is diverted to a large field, where it is filtered through soil before entering a wetland and, eventually, the Mississippi River.

>Sidewalks are treated with a compound that prevents snow from sticking. This allows snow to be scraped off, not melted by chemical treatments.

"People's behavior happens in a system," says Schmidt. "We're trying to change the system." There are, however, signs that the message is starting to get through. "Minnesota is finally developed enough that every Minnesotan can see the effects of human domination of the environment, such as more people on trails," says Kapuscinski. "And I think climate change has gotten the attention of people." The initiative is also spreading the word through workshops for journalists and teachers. Anna Pratt, a freelance journalist who writes for the Twin Cities Daily Planet, attended a recent one on water issues. "There were conflicts--for example, about eating fish," she says. "The business manager for a company that supplies fish to restaurants extolled the virtues of fish, but other speakers cautioned us not to eat too much fish from local waters and to eat small fish." That workshop also covered issues of who gets to use Great Lakes water, and for what. "Some people say that a lot of small withdrawals of water [by water bottling companies] can do some real damage and increase the disparities between people who have access to the Great Lakes and those who don't, or between people who can afford bottled water and those who can't," Pratt says. Workshops for teachers, led by Karen Oberhauser and Robert Blair--both faculty members in fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology--and Barbara Coffin of the Bell Museum, help teachers incorporate concepts of sustainability into their curricula and teach ecological principles and scientific inquiry. In 2006 the University unveiled a new minor in sustainability studies, open to students from every major. Through its courses, students learn not only ecological sciences, but also the social and economic factors that affect human and environmental degradation. And a key course gives students real-life experience on campus. "Say the landscape management people want to decrease the use of fertilizer and runoff. Students could work with them, and also in the areas of energy use, building design, or transportation," says Kapuscinski. Also, the U's College of Design offers a master's degree in sustainable design. "It's a research degree," says architecture professor Stephen Weeks. "Students will get into areas such as how to change people's patterns of consumption or how to decrease energy use by natural lighting and ventilation." As she contemplates today's U students, Kapuscinski sees hope. "Seniors now are much more on the ball than 10 years ago," she observes. "We want the next generation of leaders, politicians, white-collar workers, and so on, to have been exposed to these ideas. We want them to be as much a part of the curriculum as algebra."