Dennis Anderson
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In 1860, 80% of the U.S. population lived in rural areas. Today, 80% of Americans live in cities.

In 1860, the nation's population was a little over 31 million. Today, it's almost 330 million.

Those numbers reflect similar demographic changes in Minnesota and underscore what has been increasingly evident: that each of us has less physical space than our forebears did — places, as John Muir said, "to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul."

Vanquished also with the loss of these spaces have been the physical skills that attend not only recreational and spiritual relationships with land, as Muir suggests, but occupational relationships.

In 1900, only 18% of U.S. jobs were white-collar. By 2002, 60% of jobs were office-bound. As William Berry noted, the resulting "loss of [physical] skill" produces a loss of stewardship; and "in losing stewardship we lose fellowship until we become outcasts from the great neighborhood of Creation."

Applying Band-Aids to gaping wounds, we seek to assuage the ache that often accompanies disengagement from land by voting for eco-friendly politicians or by writing checks to organizations that restore land and the life it supports.

But such efforts ultimately will be futile, says Native American professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, because they don't rekindle relationships with land.

"Restoring land," she says, "without restoring relationship is an empty exercise. It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land."

All of which speaks to a fundamental conundrum of modern life: To progress, which most Americans define as making life easier and more comfortable, we destroy the very thing we need to live — land.

"The land gets inside of us," Barry Lopez offered in his book, "Arctic Dreams," "and we must decide one way or another what this means, [and] what we will do about it."

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In 2020, Minnesota was transfixed by the pandemic, racial tensions and the presidential election.

By comparison, natural resource conservation was a no-show in the public consciousness, which was perhaps to be expected, given the gravity of the year's events.

Yet indifference to the welfare of the state's lands, waters and wildlife comes with a steep price. Last year, as in years before, still more wetlands were drained; more lakes and rivers were infested with invasive species; chronic wasting disease infected more wild deer; more trees were cut on state lands purchased to propagate wildlife, not produce timber; farmland chemicals continued to wash through serpentine subsurface drainage systems into lakes and rivers; and more roadsides were mowed where songbirds nest and butterflies pollinate.

History has shown that pushback — not total victory, but pushback — is possible against these byproducts of "progress'' when strong conservation leaders come to the forefront.

Personality, credentials and, sometimes, charisma have propelled some Minnesotans to positions of conservation influence. Hubert Humphrey was one of these, Sigurd Olson another.

But too often, notwithstanding the good and productive work done by a relative handful of legislators, as well as some nonprofits, key citizens councils and various government agencies, Minnesota conservation leaders are constrained by the state's political realities.

This is especially true at the Department of Natural Resources, whose agenda is set by the governor and whose purse strings are controlled by the Legislature. Both — depending who's in office at a given time — shackle professional staffs that if freed could more effectively manage and sustain the state's resources.

"Multiple forces guide the DNR commissioner, and therefore the DNR, and the commissioner has to abide by those forces," said Tom Landwehr, commissioner under Gov. Mark Dayton from 2011 to 2019. "First there is the law — the commissioner can't do what isn't legally allowed. Then there's the governor, who is your boss. And the Legislature, which is your boss as well, indirectly, because they can make you do something or not do something by changing law, and they also set your budget."

Mark Holsten was DNR commissioner under Gov. Tim Pawlenty from 2007 to 2011, after serving as deputy DNR commissioner and in the Legislature from 1993 to 2002.

"A lot of the workings of Minnesota government were created in the '60s and '70s, and I think we're at a time when we should look at reorganizing some of it to address emerging problems," Holsten said. "The public policy side needs a fresh eye."

Many observers believe a citizens council should set DNR policy in Minnesota and hire its commissioner. Similar councils, or commissions, exist in more than 40 states. A citizen-legislative committee appointed by Pawlenty in 2007 endorsed such an idea, saying, "A citizen-based commission should set strategic policy and provide conservation direction and oversight."

Fearing a loss of power, no Minnesota office holder has advanced the idea. Which is ironic, given the goodwill that exists for resource stewardship among most Minnesotans, among them the late William Bryson, a farmer who fought in court for 10 years — ultimately prevailing — to prevent Freeborn County from putting a road through his wetland.

"Some of the things we're destroying," Bryson said in a 1988 interview, "have a lot more value than some of the things we're converting it to. Wetlands aren't just a home for ducks — they're providing a lot more functions. [But] the only value most people can see is another row of corn or hill of beans. Other values have to be considered or we're going to have an earth that we can't continue to live on."

danderson@startribune.com