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Wendell Anderson: Minnesota’s greatest environmental governor

Wendy Anderson is no longer with us, but his record of accomplishment in protecting Minnesota’s treasured natural resources remains the high-water mark.

Two generations of Minnesotans are not aware of an enduring Anderson legacy — environmental legislation, policy and activism.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Wendell R. Anderson is being remembered for three decades of public service as legislator, governor, senator and regent. His signature accomplishment was the “Minnesota Miracle” that restructured state finances to support education. He is also remembered for a decision, after six years as an energetic and popular governor, to move to the U.S. Senate via appointment – a fateful choice cutting short his career.

Peter L. Gove

I worked for Gov. and Sen. Anderson as environmental adviser, Pollution Control Agency (PCA) commissioner and Senate legislative director. Those were exciting years, full of accomplishments and some controversy. I look back with gratitude and respect for this hockey player, lawyer and public servant.

Wendy’s tenure in statewide office ended in 1978. So two generations of Minnesotans are not aware of another enduring Anderson legacy — environmental legislation, policy and activism. It is a legacy shared with DFL and Republican legislators, citizen advocates and nonprofits dedicated to protecting Minnesota’s natural heritage.

Wendell Anderson served a decade in the Legislature before being elected governor. His law firm represented citizens opposed to plans by Northern States Power Co. (NSP) to build a coal-fired power plant on the St. Croix River. That plant was one impetus for the Lower St. Croix River’s inclusion in 1972 in the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers system.

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During his tenure in the Minnesota Senate, Congress passed the Wilderness Act. Minnesota‘s Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) was added to the wilderness system with language allowing motorized use. That provision would become the centerpiece 15 years later of a legislative debate with Anderson in the U.S. Senate.

As a state senator, Anderson introduced a bill authorizing citizens’ suits to protect the environment. As governor, he signed that legislation into law. The Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA) was the first of literally dozens of environmental laws he signed as governor. Although weakened in 2012 by litigation initiated by AT&T, MERA remains a significant part of Minnesota’s environmental statutes.

The backdrop 

It’s worth remembering the backdrop on environmental issues in 1971 for this new governor. The first Earth Day was in 1970, the brainchild of the late, great Wisconsin Gov. and Sen. Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was motivated by egregious examples of pollution — a flaming Cuyahoga River, barely treated sewage and smog alerts. DDT was in use, as were ozone-harming products. The 1970 federal Clean Air Act mandated the first comprehensive automobile emissions controls. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established a month before he was sworn in.

In Minnesota, limited wastewater treatment and industrial pollution impacted lakes and rivers. Air quality alerts were common in the metro area. Thousands of tons of taconite tailings were daily dumped into Lake Superior. The Pollution Control Agency was created in 1967 to deal with air, water and solid waste challenges, and the Metropolitan Council in 1969 was given the responsibility to manage regional wastewater treatment.

In his inaugural address, Minnesota’s 33rd governor spoke of achieving “an age in which our will is equal to our hopes.” His list of the state’s unmet needs began as follows: “The air is bad. Our people are afraid to use many of our lakes and rivers.”

He continued: “(W)e know that our first concern must be the preservation of what we have left of the natural resources that sustain our lives. In short, in a state made famous by the beauty of its natural environment – that prides itself on the quality of its life – we have not checked the deterioration of the environment. The people of our state are pleading – demanding – beseeching us – please do something.”

Anderson followed in April 1971 with a special message to the Legislature, “Restoring and Preserving Minnesota’s Environment.” It was the first of three special messages. The dozen proposals included an Environmental Bill of Rights; a nuclear power plant moratorium; regulating feedlot, mercury and noise pollution; and prohibiting the sale of nonreturnable beverage containers.

The 1971 session was devoted to taxes and school finance. After a long special session, the Minnesota Miracle was passed – a monumental and lasting achievement. Anderson signed the Environmental Rights Act and legislation to donate state land for the new Voyageurs National Park. He appointed Grant Merritt PCA commissioner, advocates to the PCA citizens’ board, and Robert Herbst as commissioner of the newly reorganized Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Working groups prepared for the 1973 legislative session after the DFL assumed the majority in the House and Senate in the fall 1972 election.

In the 72-page February 1973 special message, “Securing a Quality Environment in Minnesota,” Anderson noted one quarter of the bills introduced in the previous session related to the restoration and preservation of air, water and land resources. He made more than 20 legislative proposals including environmental policy, critical areas and power plant siting; protecting wild and scenic rivers; energy initiatives given a deepening U.S. energy crunch; state matching funds to the 1972 Water Pollution Control Act; revising water and drainage statues; regulating off-road vehicles and expanding multi-use trails.

1973: the high-water mark

The 1973 session was the high-water mark for environmental legislation in Minnesota, with pent up demand to deal with pollution. Legislators from both parties stepped forward to sponsor bills including Reps. Willard Munger, John Boland, Arne Carlson, Phyllis Kahn, Harry and Mike Sieben and Bruce Vento, and, Sens. Roger Moe, Norbert Arnold, Win Borden, Bob Dunn, Jim Ulland and Gerry Willett. The Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) worked closely with the governor’s office on the environmental agenda. MPIRG lawyers Charles Dayton and John Herman later formed Project Environment, now the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

On May 21, 1973, Wendell Anderson signed 14 of these recommendations — a landmark for environmental legislation not likely to be seen again. He said the new laws were among 45 he recommended; 37 were approved by the Legislature.

Implementation began at the PCA, DNR and the new Environmental Quality Council. The PCA pursued nuclear power plant regulation, mounting solid waste and a looming legal showdown with Reserve Mining Company. The DNR negotiated a hunting and fishing rights settlement on the Leech Lake reservation and worked with the National Park Service and NSP to protect the St. Croix River. The Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission began its work to expand the region’s park system.

Anderson and Lt. Gov. Rudy Perpich were re-elected in November 1974 with 63 percent of the votes, carrying all 87 Minnesota counties. The campaign slogan was “He works … for the state that works.” A print ad declared, “101 reasons why the Governor we have is the Governor we need,” summarizing results by Anderson, Perpich and the Legislature. The longest sub-list was in environmental protection.

The governor delivered his final special message,“Environment and Energy: the Measure of our Commitment,” in February 1975. The opening paragraph set the stage: “This is my third special message on the environment and it contains fewer major proposals than the two that preceded it. That is because the 1971 and 1973 legislative sessions brought Minnesota the toughest, most comprehensive set of environmental laws in the country.”

That message included environment and energy sections, reflecting growing energy supply and cost challenges. The environment section addressed changing Minnesota’s taconite production tax and the prospect in the mid-1970s of copper-nickel mining adjacent to sensitive water resource areas. Compared to today’s debate, there are different companies and advances in mining technology, but the same large, low-grade ore formation plus comparable risks to water quality.

The 1975 special message dealt with other challenges: settling BWCA logging litigation; land use planning support to local governments; agricultural land preservation; wetlands management; groundwater resources and septic system regulation.

It ended with a list of 44 environmental, 13 recreational and seven energy laws passed in Anderson’s first term. By the end of the session that number increased by another dozen. An executive order he signed in 1976 designating the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area — later affirmed by Govs. Quie and Carlson — was the basis for a 1988 Act of Congress creating the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the only designated segment of the Mississippi River that is a unit of the National Park System.

Bookends of his legacy

The bookends of Anderson’s environmental legacy are the Reserve Mining Co. litigation and the management of the BWCA. Ending Reserve’s use of Lake Superior as a disposal site and determining future BWCA management confronted Anderson in Minnesota and Washington, D.C. Books have been written about both landmark environmental cases. Reserve’s dumping of taconite tailings in Lake Superior ended in 1980 after 25 years of up to 67,000 tons a day, while the latest chapter in protecting the BWCA is now being written.

Wendell Anderson was the first candidate for statewide office to support on-land disposal of taconite tailings from Reserve Mining’s Silver Bay plant. Minnesota joined the Lake Superior Enforcement Conference as his first official act as governor. Days later he testified in Duluth, where he urged on-land disposal and opposed Reserve’s proposal to dump further offshore. After Reserve refused to move to on-land disposal, he urged the federal government to begin a lawsuit.

When federal Judge Miles Lord issued an injunction against further dumping in Lake Superior, the governor directed Attorney General Warren Spannaus to support that injunction. He backed the PCA and DNR in permit hearings to seek an appropriate on-land site for Reserve’s tailings that became a lengthy and contentious process among his fellow constitutional officers.

In consistently supporting an end to the dumping of tailings in Lake Superior, Gov. Anderson opposed the taconite industry, mining unions and Iron Range officials — not unlike the challenges facing Gov. Mark Dayton with proposed sulfide mining in the Lake Superior, BWCA and Voyageurs National Park watersheds.

Senate record

Moving to the Senate, Anderson was named to the Environment and Public Works and Energy and Natural Resources Committees. He broke a deadlock on automobile emission standards taking on the legendary Rep. John Dingell. He was the Senate floor manager for the Clean Water Act. He defended the Endangered Species Act, opposed weakening wetlands protection and supported mandatory beverage container deposits.

The natural resource issue that defined his Senate career was legislation introduced by Reps. Don Fraser and Jim Oberstar relative to the BWCA. Those bills were before Congress as Anderson arrived in Washington in 1977. The Oberstar bill divided the BWCA into wilderness (no logging or motors) and recreation areas allowing logging and motorboats. The Fraser bill designated the entire BWCA as wilderness and no motors.

There were contentious hearings in St. Paul and Ely not unlike recent hearings on the proposed PolyMet and Twin Metals projects. In the midst of this process, the lead author of the Wilderness Act, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, passed away. Rep. Phillip Burton (chair of a House Interior Subcommittee) and Bruce Vento then introduced legislation comparable to the Fraser bill, eliminating all logging.

Anderson was in a difficult position between wilderness advocates and many northern Minnesotans who favored continued motorized access in the BWCA. The Fraser vs. Oberstar bills divided his party and affected relationships in the 8th Congressional District. He was criticized by some environmentalists and many Range politicians, and was the subject of cynical editorial cartoons. He invited several U.S. senators to Minnesota to observe the area firsthand from an Air Force plane and held a hearing in Ely.

Anderson supported negotiations between environmental attorney Charles Dayton and Ely City Attorney Ron Walls to determine, lake-by-lake, where motors would be permitted. After a grueling process, a compromise was reached where some lakes remained motorized but many were converted to canoe wilderness. Logging was prohibited and almost all snowmobiles banned. The overall size of the BWCA was expanded.

Anderson backed this agreement, but it was slammed in northern Minnesota. He followed through on his pledge to pass it in the Senate. It became the basis for P.L. 95-495, designating the BWCA Wilderness; it was signed by President Jimmy Carter on Oct. 21, 1978. A month earlier Rep. Fraser was defeated by Robert Short in the DFL primary with the 8th District overwhelmingly supporting Short.

BWCA agreement came with a price

Anderson lost votes in northern Minnesota in the November election for agreeing to a reduction in motorized lakes and in the metro area from those favoring the more restrictive Fraser approach. Other factors certainly were at play in his 1978 election defeat. To this day, when I read about copper-nickel mining proposals and the divide between DFL officials, I recall 1978. Creating an all-but-motorless BWCA came with a political price.

Wendy Anderson is no longer with us, but his record of accomplishment in protecting Minnesota’s treasured natural resources remains the high-water mark. Some of his proposals were not enacted and others are debated today, including packaging restrictions and agricultural runoff. Several bills he signed were later amended. But all in all, his record in the environmental arena is the gold standard.

Gov. Mark Dayton, who began his career working for Sen. Walter Mondale during Anderson’s first term as governor, has distinguished himself for his advocacy for clean water, agricultural buffer zones and protecting the BWCA. He faces a tougher legislative climate than Anderson with a divided Legislature and environmental protection no longer a priority for the Republican Party. Dayton is called an environmental governor and appropriately so.

In April, Wendell Anderson was honored at the annual Sigurd Olson luncheon at the Town and Country Club in St. Paul, a favorite golf venue located within the boundary of the Mississippi River National Park he set in motion in 1976 and a few blocks from the hospice where he spent his final weeks. We worked together on his talk about his friendship with the beloved wilderness advocate and author. A framed photo of Sig and Wendy at a Crane Lake Voyageurs Day event sits today next to the typewriter on Olson’s iconic writing shack in Ely.

Wendy did not have the energy that day to deliver those remarks, so I did on his behalf. It was a final assignment supporting him on a journey that began 45 years ago.

Peter L. Gove lives in St. Paul. Following 10 years in public service, Gove was an executive with Control Data Corporation, St. Jude Medical, Inc. and several startup medtech company boards. The past decade he has been a board member for local and national conservation organizations, a trustee of Northland College and represents Minnesota on the Great Lakes Protection Fund board. He can be reached at