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Meet Minnesota’s most prolific environmental writer

John Helland
Photo by Marty Broan
John Helland

John Helland may be Minnesota’s most prolific environmental writer — yet you may have not read a single sentence of his.

Helland retired recently from the Minnesota Legislature, where he had a hand in writing every major (and most of the minor) pieces of environmental legislation since 1970. In his role as legislative analyst for the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, the quiet, unassuming Helland put his pen to everything from the Environmental Policy Act of 1973 to last year’s renewable energy standards.

“We’ve had a great record of caring about the environment in Minnesota,” he said last week, shortly before he received a Conservation Leadership Award from Conservation Minnesota (formerly the League of Conservation Voters). “People like to be outdoors and enjoy the lakes and rivers, the camping, the hiking and all of that.”

Helland, who grew up in Minneapolis, had recently graduated with a history degree from the University of Minnesota when he signed on as a researcher at the Capitol. He remembers the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, as a key moment in the state’s environmental history. “Everyone became interested in the environment. The House had a couple of committees that dealt with those issues and in 1971 created an environmental policy committee,” he said. “It wasn’t as partisan back then. There were a lot of moderate Republicans, for example, who cared about the environment.”

An important legislative session
DFLer Wendell Anderson had been elected governor in 1971; in 1973 Rep. Willard Munger, DFL-Duluth, became chair of the environmental policy committee. Both were strong advocates for the environment, so the pieces were in place for major initiatives. The 1973 legislative session “is and was the biggest session for environmental legislation in state history,” Helland recalled.

Legislation to come out of the 1973 session included the Environmental Policy Act, the Environmental Quality Board (then Council); laws on power-plant sitings and mine land reclamation; the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act; a water pollution law stronger than the federal requirements; an environmental education board; solid-waste recycling rules; lake improvement standards, and more.

Helland was hard-pressed to rank the laws he helped craft over 38 years, but he did list several top pieces of environmental legislation, in no particular order: the Environmental Policy Act, Superfund (toxic waste cleanup, 1983), the Waste Management Act of 1980, the Environmental Trust Fund in 1988, the Groundwater Protection Act of 1989, the permits for nuclear storage at Prairie Island in 1994 and the Clean Water Legacy Act in 2006.

The inclusion of Prairie Island nuclear storage in a list of top environmental legislation may come as a surprise. But Helland said that as part of the tradeoffs to get it passed, the state, for the first time, addressed alternative energy sources seriously.

In his retirement, Helland is working on a documentary of Munger’s life and plans to write an environmental history of the state. He’s also keeping an eye on the progress of legislation proposing the dedication of a portion of the state sales tax to environment and the arts — which, of course, he helped write.

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