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How The Environment Has Shaped the State

From Sustenance to Leisure on Minnesota Land

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Headwaters of the Mississippi River

The headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca. Photograph by Randen Pederson, June 2, 2010. CC BY-SA 2.0

Minnesotans love getting outside, and one of their favorite places to enjoy the great outdoors is Itasca State Park. The state's first and most famous state park, Itasca features the headwaters of the Mississippi River and attracts thousands of visitors every year.

At the headwaters, vacationers hop across the Mighty Mississippi on a few small stones. An inscription on a nearby tree trunk notes the long trek that the river makes from this unlikely spot. As an iconic nature experience, a visit to Itasca State Park has few equals.

Yet this idyllic site hides as much as it reveals. For centuries, it harbored a wetland rich in plants and wildlife. But in 1903, a logging dam flooded the headwaters. So, in 1941, workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) stabilized Lake Itasca's water level with a new concrete dam at the Mississippi's source. They moved earth, planted trees, and placed beautifully weathered stones—for walking across the small stream—on top of the dam. The supervising engineers hoped these aesthetic adjustments would "renaturalize" the site and turn it into a popular tourist destination. Clearly, they succeeded.

Throughout Minnesota's past, people of every sort have busily mixed together nature and human artifice. Shaped by three watersheds (the Mississippi River, the Red River of the North, and Lake Superior), Minnesota sports a tremendous range of flora and fauna. From tall-grass prairies to hardwood forests, aspen parks, and coniferous stands, the four biomes found in the state have attracted humans since the last Ice Age. As people have wrested sustenance from the land, they have remade local ecologies as well as their own society, just as the CCC did at Itasca State Park. The environmental history of what has become Minnesota highlights the reciprocal relationship between nature and society—each shaping the other over time.

Sustaining Communities

Dakota peoples (and their relatives) called the region around the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers home for hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans. They structured daily life and ritual around the abundant, if ever-shifting, environment. Springtime meant moving to the planting villages, where women tended to corn, beans, and squash, while men looked for large bison herds roaming the nearby prairie. Late summer saw families move to wild ricing camps. Fall sent men deer hunting in the woodlands. Deepest winter entailed hunkering down in tipis near their summer lodges. At the first thaw, maple sugar camps drew Dakota women and children into the forests, while the men hunted fur-bearing mammals. The deliberate use of fire created critical-edge habitats where animals and berries flourished. Rivers offered transportation routes and access to game. In every case, the landscape sustained life.

Before Europeans ever reached the center of the continent, changes wrought by them resulted in migrations to and from the region. For example, the Spanish first imported horses to North America in the 1500s, and when those horses arrived on the Northern Plains in the early 1700s, it made bison hunting more attractive. This drew Tsistsista (Cheyenne), Lakota, and Nakota peoples west, away from the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers toward the short-grass plains.

When Ojibwe peoples arrived in the early 1600s, they shared the Dakota's seasonal ways, which rejected a stark divide between people and nature. These migrants looked to the bounty of the northern lakes, which offered wild rice, fish, waterfowl, deer, and dense stands of berries. Allied with French fur traders, the Ojibwe also brought a lively exchange in furs and European goods. By the 1700s, the fur trade became a primary focus for everyone in the region. But microbes traveled alongside trade goods, bringing epidemic disease. In the early 1800s, populations of highly-prized beaver collapsed, reducing the number of beaver dams and reshaping local watersheds.

Creating Commodities

The making of Minnesota—first as a territory (1849) and then as a state (1858)—dispossessed the Dakota and Ojibwe of their land. It also ensured a rapid makeover of the state's environment. Americans traveled west not only with different technologies, plants, and animals, but also with different ways of imagining and using land. The Land Ordinance of 1785, for instance, demanded that a grid be overlaid on the landscape. This process made land into something abstract and divided—namely, property. With maps and surveys in hand, Americans could more easily buy and sell the many components of nature.

During his 1861 visit, naturalist Henry David Thoreau noted the ecological diversity of Minnesota's grasslands, even as they were being bounded off into plots and sold to colonists as rich farmlands for single-crop agriculture. Across the state, soils, plants, and minerals became resources to be extracted and reshaped into commodities suitable for sale in a global marketplace. Farmers turned the sun's energy and nutrients, captured in prairie loam, into corn and wheat. Lumberjacks transformed vast stands of red and white pine into board feet. And later in the century, miners began digging deep into the earth to bring forth valuable ores for smelting from the Vermilion and Mesabi ranges.

Colonists even put the water that flowed south from Lake Itasca to use. St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi River powered the giant saw and flour mills that transformed a small river settlement into the largest city in the state—Minneapolis. Like other nineteenth-century Americans, Minneapolis residents looked to "improve" on nature's existing handiwork, in this case by increasing the amount of extractable water power from the falls. But their misguided efforts led to the near-collapse of the feature in 1869. Only a massive engineering effort to stabilize the falls in the 1870s and 1880s preserved Minneapolis's future as an industrial center.

During the late-nineteenth century, Americans and immigrants transformed ecologies in less obvious ways through the introduction of non-native species such as ring-necked pheasants and carp. Both quickly became so common as to seem native to most present-day Minnesotans. Market hunting and commercial fishing flourished, even as the Ojibwe people's treaty-reserved rights to hunt, fish, and gather on off-reservation lands were denied.

All this took immense amounts of human, animal, and mechanical energy, making nineteenth-century Minnesota a humming cauldron of agricultural and industrial activity. It also profoundly disrupted the state's existing ecosystems. Busting prairie sod, denuding woodlands, and tunneling deep beneath the earth destroyed forests and grasslands, increased soil erosion, and decimated wildlife populations.

Conserving Commodities

The ongoing degradation of Minnesota's environment—and the uneven concentration of wealth it made possible—made some in Minnesota uneasy. Leftover slash, lit by careless loggers or sparks thrown by locomotives, set ablaze thousands of acres of cutover forests year after year. In 1894, fires swept through Hinckley, killing hundreds. More Minnesotans died in 1910 when flames destroyed Baudette and Spooner. The 1918 infernos that laid waste to Cloquet, Moose Lake, Kettle River, and thirty other towns further emphasized that unchecked extraction made for large profits but produced deadly consequences for forests and people.

Troubled by hazards, misuse, and waste, reformers sought to manage forests so that they would be used more carefully over the long term. Organizations such as the Minnesota Federation of Women's Clubs lobbied the federal government to oversee land use in northern Minnesota. In response, Congress established the Chippewa National Forest—the first congressionally mandated national forest—in 1902. President Theodore Roosevelt followed up by creating the Superior National Forest in 1909. The state mimicked these national initiatives. Christopher C. Andrews, a noted Civil War veteran who served as both state fire warden and state forestry commissioner, established a state forest system in 1911. However, government efforts to ensure the wise use of public lands also pushed out the American Indians and poor whites who lived and worked in those forests.

Supporting Leisure

Conservationists' efforts to manage land use—coupled with a growing middle class in Minnesota's cities—produced landscapes of leisure that competed with older visions of laboring on the land. Through the early 1900s, state and federal agencies began monitoring not only forests but also fisheries, waterfowl, and wildlife. Fishing and hunting became more than a way for rural people to feed their family or make a living. City dwellers interested in leisure made sure that stalking game and angling became regulated forms of recreation in the 1920s. By 1931, the state established the Department of Conservation (later the Department of Natural Resources) to enforce the new laws.

With logging in decline, small North Woods towns capitalized on urbanites' interest in outdoor play and turned to tourism to stay alive. State boosters began marketing resorts across the "land of 10,000 lakes" to vacationers. And Great Depression programs such as the CCC and the Works Progress Administration offered state officials further resources for creating recreational spaces. A more carefully planned state park system resulted, attracting automobile campers by the thousands.

Nonetheless, older impulses to extract resources and "improve" the land persisted in Minnesota. In the 1930s, for example commercial interests and the US Army Corps of Engineers succeeded in transforming the Mississippi River into a transportation artery through a series of locks and dams, just as the Corps of Engineers had altered the Upper Mississippi—over the objections of the Ojibwe—in the 1880s and 1890s.

In fact, tensions between those who labored to extract commodities and those who sought leisure on the land grew across the state. Ernest Oberholtzer, a Rainy Lake-based writer and activist, kept dams out of the Boundary Waters and helped lead conservationists across the country in an effort to preserve wilderness in the 1920s and 1930s. Sigurd Olson, a writer and scientist from Ely, soon joined him. Troubled by the expansive reach of the automobile, they worked to set aside rural areas free of internal combustion engines.

In Minnesota, they focused their attention on the Boundary Waters region. At their urging, in 1956, US Senator Hubert H. Humphrey introduced legislation calling for the formal protection of some federal lands—including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA)—as engine-free wilderness. After years of fierce opposition, the Wilderness Act finally became law in 1964. Importantly, it left the management of motors, mining, and logging in the BWCA unsettled.

Politicizing Nature

The growing environmental consciousness of the 1960s and 1970s spawned more conflict in Minnesota. State legislators created the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 1967 and then passed the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (1971) and the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (1973). Yet events in northern Minnesota soon overshadowed these legislative advances.

In 1955, the Reserve Mining Company—one of the nation's largest—began dumping toxic taconite tailings into Lake Superior at Silver Bay. By the late 1960s, the plant there discharged nearly 60,000 tons of tailings per day, threatening the health of Lake Superior and Duluth's water supply. In 1969, a Minneapolis lawyer representing a newly formed local chapter of the Sierra Club filed suit. An endless legal tangle ensued. The Environmental Protection Agency finally took Reserve Mining to court in 1972. After further legal battles, the plant quit discharging tailings into the lake in 1980.

Meantime, legal and legislative fights over the BWCA grew in intensity. Efforts to halt logging and ban motors drew resistance not just from corporations but also from locals who made their living from the land. By 1975, James Oberstar, a newly elected member of the US House from northern Minnesota, introduced a bill in Congress to settle the dispute. A congressman from Minneapolis—Donald Fraser—countered with proposed legislation offering more environmental protections. Finally signed into law in 1978, a compromise bill kept mining and logging out of the canoe area, but allowed small motors on specific lakes. Besides settling a long-simmering debate, the fight highlighted deep-seated divides among Minnesotans over environmentalism.

Living the "Good Life"

Even as these intense conflicts over land and water use raged, by the early 1970s, Minnesotans lived what a Time magazine cover story famously labeled "the good life." More than a million people purchased state fishing licenses every year, and thousands more enjoyed canoeing, camping, boating, hunting, and snowmobiling. Outdoor amenities seemed to be a birthright. Minnesota also became a leader in the rails-to-trails movement. As early as 1969, some of the state's unused railway corridors were turned into recreational walking and biking paths.

Owning a private lakeside getaway became more attractive than ever to Twin Cities residents. Thus the last three decades of the twentieth century saw a dramatic expansion in rural lakeshore construction. The same building boom sparked environmental efforts to protect the few remaining undisturbed lakes in Minnesota, such as those found in Voyageurs National Park, established in 1975. Nonetheless, exotic species such as zebra mussels, Eurasian milfoil, and non-native earthworms traveled alongside tourists and suppressed or replaced native plant, animal, and aquatic populations across Minnesota.

Contradictions and Consequences

Minnesotans who longed for a lake place or scenic bike ride took advantage of new interstate highways to get there and back. Auto-centric lifestyles prevailed across Minnesota, thanks in part to cheap fossil fuels. Ribbons of concrete carved their way around, between, and through urban cores, fostering suburban sprawl and displacing racial minorities like those in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood and on Minneapolis's North Side. The vast expansion of impermeable surfaces in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s simultaneously made cities seem less natural and disrupted local water cycles.

The destruction of wetlands in suburban housing developments around Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Cloud, Duluth, Rochester, and Moorhead was matched only by the damage done by drain tile on farmland through the same period. Federal efforts, like the Conservation Reserve Program (1985), eased some of the worst effects. But these changes worsened soil erosion and concentrated pesticides in rural watersheds, especially the Minnesota River. Furthermore, draining swamps intensified destructive flooding every spring, especially along the Red River of the North, which saw dramatic flooding in 1997.

Often spared the worst of annual flooding, the Twin Cities has still paid dearly for decades of industrial production. Neighborhoods near factories harbor pockets of intense poverty and put residents at environmental risk. In 1983, the recurrent detection of toxic chemicals in soils and drinking water forced the state to put aside monies in a "superfund" to clean up Minnesota's long-ignored industrial wastes. Yet toxics continued to threaten human health. Highway engineers found high levels of arsenic in an industrial parcel in South Minneapolis in 1994. In 2007, officials discovered polluted aquifers beneath Cottage Grove, Newport, and South St. Paul—all near 3M's Maplewood headquarters.

Despite actions to the contrary, most Minnesotans treasure the state's natural amenities and their own reputation as outdoorspeople. But they remain deeply divided on how to respond to pressing environmental issues such as sprawl, fossil fuel dependence, American Indian fishing and hunting rights, non-point source pollution, and climate change. In 2008, Minnesotans voted to amend the state constitution to use the proceeds of a new sales tax to "protect, enhance, and restore our wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat" for decades to come. The success of those efforts depends on how thoroughly Minnesota residents understand the intricate mingling of nature and artifice that is Minnesota's environment.

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© Michael J. Lansing
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Related Images

Headwaters of the Mississippi River
Headwaters of the Mississippi River
Black and white photograph of Ojibwe on the St. Croix River, 1885.
Black and white photograph of Ojibwe on the St. Croix River, 1885.
Men harvesting wild rice
Men harvesting wild rice
Duck hunters returning after hunting on Heron Lake
Duck hunters returning after hunting on Heron Lake
View of Hinckley main street the morning after the fire
View of Hinckley main street the morning after the fire
Tailings delta, Silver Bay
Tailings delta, Silver Bay
Campers in the Superior National Forest
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Interstate 94 construction at Dale Street and St. Anthony
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Dam on Elk Lake
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Lake Itasca
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Mississippi River dam at Little Falls
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Taconite stockpile
Taconite stockpile
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Drain tile ditching machine
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Color image of a sunrise during the autumnal equinox in Blue Mounds State Park, 1990.
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Color image of a Sioux Quartzite ridge and hiking trail at Pipestone National Monument, 2010. Photograph taken by flicker user Brian Jeffery Beggerly.Sioux Quartzite ridge and hiking trail at Pipestone National Monument, 2010. Photograph taken by flicker user Brian Jeffery Beggerly.
Color image of a Sioux Quartzite ridge and hiking trail at Pipestone National Monument, 2010. Photograph taken by flicker user Brian Jeffery Beggerly.Sioux Quartzite ridge and hiking trail at Pipestone National Monument, 2010. Photograph taken by flicker user Brian Jeffery Beggerly.
Color image of canoers in the BWCA, ca. 2006.
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Color image of a view of Lake Vermilion. Photograph by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Staff, October 30, 2007.


Environmental history is the study of the reciprocal relationship between nature and society.

Dakota and Ojibwe peoples embedded themselves in landscapes of sustenance, rejecting stark divides between people and nature.

White settlement and the dispossessing of native peoples led to the bounding of land and the creation of landscapes of labor in nineteenth-century Minnesota.

The nineteenth century also saw the transformation of ecological objects into economic commodities: solar power and soil to crops, trees to lumber, and minerals to ore.

The degradation of Minnesota's ecosystems led to turn-of-the-twentieth-century efforts to conserve natural resources.

Landscapes of leisure emerged throughout rural Minnesota in the early twentieth century as the result of top-down regulation of land use and a decline in extractive industries.

Tensions over land use between those striving for landscapes of labor and those working for landscapes of leisure also emerged, especially in northern Minnesota.

Crucial wetlands were destroyed after World War II in suburban as well as rural communities.

Industrial pollution continues to be a serious environmental issue in urban areas.

Minnesotans' identification with the outdoors is complicated by divisions over sprawl, fossil fuel dependence, treaty rights, pollution, and climate change even as they agree to protect Minnesota's environment (as evidenced by passage of the "Legacy" amendment to the state's constitution in 2008).



The creation of Minnesota Territory officially brings federal land surveyors to the region. They carve up land into square plots for sale (as directed by the Land Ordinance of 1785).


St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company is established in Minneapolis to increase industrial access to power at the falls.


Forest fires in Minnesota draw national attention when 200,000 acres of woodland and the towns of Hinckley and Sandstone burn. The flames kill more than 400 people.


Theodore Roosevelt establishes the Chippewa National Forest—the first congressionally mandated national forest in the United States—after extensive lobbying by the Minnesota Federation of Women's Clubs.


Civil War veteran Christopher C. Andrews promotes principles of scientific forestry in a successful effort to establish a state forest system.


Congress approves a US Army Corps of Engineers plan to build a lock and dam system, creating a nine-foot transportation channel on the Mississippi River from Red Wing, Minnesota, to Alton, Illinois.


Drawing on the advice of the Wilderness Society, US Senator Hubert H. Humphrey introduces the Wilderness Act in Congress. The bill becomes law in 1964.


Construction of Interstate 94 displaces African American residents of St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood.


The federal Environmental Protection Agency files a lawsuit against the Reserve Mining Company for dumping taconite tailings into Lake Superior at Silver Bay.


After decades of legal and legislative debates, federal compromise legislation on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area establishes permanent land use guidelines for Minnesota's border region.


Dramatic spring floods inundate much of western Minnesota along the Red River of the North.


In a controversial ruling, the US Supreme Court decides that the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe retains fishing and hunting rights reserved in nineteenth-century treaties.