Economic development and the environment: no longer a trade-off

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While watching the New Hampshire Facebook Presidential debate a few weeks ago, I felt that something was missing. I wasn’t alone.

At the conclusion, Facebook members were polled and thousands said that they wanted to hear more about the economy and the environment. So, it wasn’t just me, my husband or our friends.

(Editor’s Note: Today, Minnesota 2020 welcomes our newest Fellow, Leah Peterson. Leah brings an environmental perspective to Minnesota 2020’s key issue areas.)

As the debates began, I hoped to hear good ideas for renewable energy development, addressing the impacts of climate change, promoting the next generation of biofuels, and the like. Whether it was the moderator’s fault or the candidates’, environmental and economic issues weren’t addressed. In the midst of debating with my husband and friends whether we’ll ever hear the candidates discussing more about the environment or the economy, it became increasingly clear that the 2008 public policy debate is no longer the environment or the economy–these issues are very often one and the same.

Minnesota’s economic development success has been closely tied to our land, water and other natural resources: mining on the iron range, forestry in the north woods, fisheries in our lakes, renewable energy development, biofuel production, and agriculture. Moreover, access to outdoor activities is a driver for Minnesota’s high quality of life and tourism industry.

Let’s go to the numbers:

* According to the MN Department of Natural Resources in any given year,
– 29% of Minnesotans fish
– 14% of Minnesotans hunt
– 30% of Minnesotans visit a Minnesota state park
– 74% of Minnesotans boat

* 65% of Minnesotans watch wildlife.

* Hunters, anglers, wildlife watchers, and state park users combined spend $2.84 billion in Minnesota each year.

* In 2000, Minnesota’s forest products, minerals and mining, and outdoor recreation industries contributed $10.85 billion to our state’s gross state product.

* It is estimated that 57,000 jobs in MN are related to the outdoor recreation economy.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates the economic development impact of Minnesota’s new renewable energy standard to:

* Create over 5,000 new permanent jobs in manufacturing, construction, operation, maintenance, and other industries or 40 percent more jobs than producing the electricity from fossil fuels.

* Generate $1.7 billion in new capital investment, $383 million in income to farmers and rural landowners, and $126 million in new local tax revenues.

* Save consumers $500 million in lower electricity and natural gas bills

Minnesotans and state policy makers should consider the mounting questions related to the relationship between the environment and economic development:

* Is the ethanol that supports so many of our farmers sustainable?

* How will our economy be impacted when we have no hunters because the wetlands and ducks are gone?

* How would a wind turbine manufacturing plant affect our economy?

* How will climate change impact our state’s industries and economy?

* Why is eating locally more than just a sexy trend?

* Why would Minnesota build a coal-fired power plant — “clean” or otherwise — when our renewable electricity development potential is so high?

Over the next few months Minnesota 2020 will be addressing some of these questions and their related policy implications by bringing together outdoor enthusiasts, economists, scientists, researchers, environmental program directors, policy experts, and others to move the discussion forward.

You won’t hear us claim that the sky is falling but you might read about how climate change affects annual precipitation and how it subsequently affects our state’s farmers. You won’t see Minnesota 2020 Fellows reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring on a park bench but you may read about the threat of Minnesota’s feedlot regulations to our drinking water. You’re not going to see us aboard the Greenpeace boat, but you are likely to read how a decrease in the quality of your lake water decreases the resale value of your cabin or home.

It’s imperative that all Minnesotans recognize that our state’s economic development potential and quality of life is tied with our natural resources and the environment. Minnesota has depended upon its land, waters, and natural resources to support its economy since before statehood and will continue to do so into the future. The question is no longer the economy or the environment. Minnesotans can still utilize our state’s natural resources and grow our economy.

While these issues may currently be ignored on the national presidential stage, they are issues that are important to me, to Minnesota 2020, and whether or not you’re willing to admit it, these are issues that are important to you, too.