UPDATE September 11, 2015: As the Brainerd Dispatch and other venues report, the DNR has cancelled the EAW after RD Offutt cut a deal with the agency. [end update]
While the Star Tribune editorial, A review of 'pines-to-potatoes' conversion in Minnesota, is spot on in praising Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Commissioner Tom Landwehr's action on 'pines-to-potatoes' conversion, it also raises a couple of questions for Bluestem.
Against messaging: peeling R.O. Offutt potato field talking points
First, we're scratching our head on talking points raised by representatives of R.D. Offutt to support deforestation. Take, for instance the notion that swapping forest for farmland is fine because Offutt isn't actually going to growing any more potatoes than it does now, but it will have more land for rotating crops:
He and other Offutt officials noted that the company is seeking to expand its footprint so that it can rotate potato crops, which is a more sustainable farming method.
We must observe that we're not seeing plans by Offutt to let that ground lie fallow. Rather, the rotations in the sandy soil will likely be corn and soybeans, both of which will require fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. It's also possible that the fields will be irrigated as needed.
These uses are still those of farmland, not forests.
It's like the Offutt talking point we mentioned in our post Hot Potato Politics: SFA-MN clarifies role in giving tech assistance to water quality project:
We also found the last sentence of the Offutt news item fascinating:
Potlatch, which has been using the land to grow trees for commercial wood products manufacturing, is cutting down the trees for its own use before we ever take possession.
Perhaps Offutt needs a lesson on Potlatch's statement, Our Forest Stewardship Policy. While Potlatch is selling the land now, to point the finger at a timber company for "cutting down the trees for its own use" seems willful ignorance about renewable forestry. But perhaps the RDO leadership can't see the forest for the trees.
Perhaps Offutt should patent this one and sell it to those seeking to buy and convert farmland into fracland or vast tracks of tract housing and parking lots. The frac sand miners and sprawl developers could point out that the farmers had harvested their soybeans and corn before the land was purchased, just as Potlatch had cut down a generation of pine trees before Offutt stepped in.
If cutting down trees alone meant the end of a forest's ecology, then we'd have no state forests at all. Fact is, modern timberland is managed and renewed, but it's not a potato, bean or corn field, whatever the rotation happens to be on a given year. What Offutt is doing is converting sizeable tracts of renewable forest land to farmland, and the DNR commissioner and others are correct in questioning the impact on this conversion to agriculture.
Mashed potatoes: where's the context for the Strib's editorial?
It's certainly flattering to read this in the Star Tribune:
It’s disappointing that Landwehr has not been backed more publicly by other state commissioners — those at the Department of Health or Agriculture, for example — with strong interests in this issue.
That Landwehr has been doing a solo act may have something to do with the perceived influence of Offutt’s family owners. They were influential political campaign contributors in 2014 legislative races — the details of which were energetically brought to light over the past week by Bluestem Prairie blogger Sally Jo Sorensen. With the Republican House’s focus on lightening businesses’ regulatory burden, decisions like Landwehr’s likely aren’t going to be politically popular.
The attention to our blogging is welcome, but it highlights to us the fact that the Star Tribune's news section published articles about the DNR's announcement of the Environmental Assessment Worksheet, but nothing about the fallout at the state capitol following that announcement.
Even from our Little Alamut on the Prairie, we had heard rumors of scurrying about by the forces of Taterdom and their retainers in the people's house that Cass Gilbert built. One would think that at least one member of the capitol media corps might tell us of those stirrings, but perhaps Star Tribune and other media had their hands full over the commissioners' salary trolling.
In closing, a brief review of the political campaign contributions the Strib editors mention. Here's a recap from our most recent post about the money:
In No small potatoes: Dept of Natural Resources requires EAW for pinelands to spud fields project, Bluestem noted the $50,000 contribution by R.D. Offutt, the potato industry leader that's deforesting parts of northern Minnesota, to the Minnesota Jobs Coalition Legislative IE Fund.
The MJC is credited as being one of the forces that flipped the Minnesota House; Ben Golnik, its chair, has become the executive director of the Minnesota House Republican Caucus.
The company itself funded the group, but several Offutt family members also gave campaign contributions to Representative Denny McNamara (R-Hastings), who was the lead Republican on the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee in the last session.
From the searchable contribution database at the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board:
McGovern, Keith 09-17-2014 McNamara, Dennis House Dist. 54B Committee RDO $250.00
McGovern, Rondi 09-17-2014 McNamara, Dennis House Dist. 54B Committee RDO $250.00
Neal, Scott 09-16-2014 McNamara, Dennis House Dist. 54B Committee RDO $500.00
Keith McGovern and Scott Neal are the sons-in-law of RDO director emeritus Ron Offutt; Rondi is his daughter.
While that's a mere $1000--dwarfed by the privately-held company's contribution to Golnik's PAC--there's a fair chance that the donors (who don't appear to live in McNamara's district) understood that McNamara would once again chair the committee with oversight of the Department of Natural Resources budget.
Perhaps the company's $50,000 payment to Golnik's PAC had something to do with 2013-2014 chair Jean Wagenius (DFL-Minneapolis) getting booted from the committee entirely, in contradiction to House custom to approve minority caucus picks for committee minority leads.
According to Minnesota Legislators Past and Present, McNamara chaired the committee in the 2011-2012, and became the minority when the DFL retook the House in the 2012 election. The courtesy was discontinued with the ascendance of Speaker Daudt and Golnik.
Money changes everything, like the lady sings. For ourselves, we find ourselves wondering where the spring warblers, the songbirds that pass through these parts in April and May, one of the great migrations, will go if their summer nesting habitat has become farmland--or, further north, tar sands pits.
Money changes everything.
Let's hope that the traditional media can start connecting dots between the wishlists of those who funded "the flip" and the legislative agenda put forth by the Republicans who now control the Minnesota House.
In the meantime, we're saddened but not surprised that R.D. Offutt's $50,000 contribution to MN Jobs Coalition comes to less than $2 per acre for the 27,000 acres of pinelands that may eventually turn into farmland for corn, beans, and, yes, potatoes.
Photos: Pinelands (tops, via DNR); Minnesota House Environmental and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Chair Denny McNamara (R-Hastings).
If you appreciate Bluestem Prairie, you can mail contributions (payable to Sally Jo Sorensen P.O. Box 108, Maynard MN 56260) or use the paypal button below:
Email subscribers can contribute via this link to paypal; use email sally.jo.sorensen at gmail.com as recipient.