Speaking out because I want the good things to survive me
Column: Dear North
Cook County News-Herald

Matthew Miltich
Contributing columnist

Whitecaps race across the bay ahead of me. Wild wind tears fine spray from curling tops. This big, inland lake is stirred up. Bits of aquatic vegetation, torn loose from their moorings, roll in the blue-green surf.

The season is turned on its ear, too. Against the dark green of summer foliage, the quaking aspens are turning gold, and here and there a sugar maple has given up its summer work, and gone crimson. Ash leaves, curled and brown already, lie in a watery windrow along a windward shore. The air isnâ??t chill, but itâ??s not warm either.

A big weather front approaching from the west is whipping up this wind, and behind it, much cooler air advances. I can feel this in my bones as I bounce across the waves in my fishing boat. Might this be my last fishing campaign of the summer season? Already Iâ??ve touched-up my old bluebill decoys with new paint, and begun training my Labrador retrievers in earnest.

When I begin to troll along a drop-off, I hook and land a stout little bass, unhook and release it. Minutes later, a bigger fish strikes. The line angles up quickly, a sure sign the fish is about to jump. He breaks water, shakes his head wildly, and sends my plug flying, which makes me laugh. Itâ??s fun to feel the strength of such a fish, no shame to lose it thus, and in any case, Iâ??d not keep one so big.

I feel a little different about the trout that strikes as I round the tip of a sharp point. It runs toward the boat just as the full force of the wind hits the bow. Iâ??m alone aboard my craft; the bow is a little light, and the boat is hard to control in this wind. I canâ??t quite keep tension on the line as the big trout porpoises from one wave into the next, its unmistakable shape and color framed for an instant in the space between the rollers, and then the line goes slack.

For a moment, I feel the pang of its loss. Had I landed it, would I have released the trout, or kept it for my supper? I confess, I donâ??t know, but even in the few seconds between the strike and the fish breaking free, I feel tension in the choice.

I do know that as I grow older, my desire to conserve our precious wild resources grows stronger, though my family and I eat much fish and wild game, and I love to fish and hunt as much as ever. For some unfathomable reason, I want the good things I myself have enjoyed in my native land, to survive me, to endure for my children and grandchildren, and for all those who live after me.

This impulse finds its way into my writing, into my conversations, into the experiences I share with others in the outdoors. Recently, it led me to speak at a public meeting about a proposed, coal-powered electricity generating plant, to be sited, if approved, on the Mesabi Iron Range in northern Minnesota, in either the Lake Superior watershed or the upper Mississippi.

Understand, Iâ??d rather never speak in public. I shy away from public gatherings for the same reason that Iâ??m alone on the lake this day: I love solitude (shared sometimes with friends), prefer the country to any town or city, and desire peace.

Even so, as a conservationist, and as a matter of conscience, I attended the public meeting and spoke against the Mesaba Energy Project because I think the project puts northern Minnesota at risk. The proposed plant would be a giant â?? one of the largest power facilities in the world â?? requiring an endless succession of trains loaded with dirty coal. Excelsior Energy, Inc. would condemn private land and homes, both for its site and for new transmission lines to the Twin Cities. The electricity produced would not be used in northern Minnesota; the proposers have been exempted even from showing any need for the power. Presently, the Twin Cities has no such need.

Sold as a â??clean coal initiative,â? the coal gasification process they proffer creates many poisons. The plantâ??s proposers intend to bury toxic waste in landfills in our good country, underlain everywhere by the cleanest water in the world, and contribute deadly mercury, which persists forever, to northern Minnesota lakes, poisoning our fish, our wildlife, and us. Also, of course, though weâ??re awakening this very moment to the actual onset of global warming, the proposed giant would produce huge volumes of carbon dioxide, and no way to sequester it.
The proposers are not backers or entrepreneurs in the traditional sense. They expect to fund their private enterprise with monies collected from taxpayers: $55.5 million awarded to them, so far, in public funds, including $10 million Minnesota dollars earmarked for solar, wind, and renewable energy; $800 million promised to them in guaranteed federal loans; $12 million borrowed by the state for public infrastructure to support Excelsiorâ??s private, for-profit venture.
They sell their project as a boon to northern Minnesotaâ??s economy and the rural poor, but itâ??s clear that the few new long-term jobs it creates will go to outsiders, that the real beneficiaries will be the already wealthy proposers, while the poor will remain poor, and be worse off than before because their very homeland will be despoiled.
How could this come to pass? Imagine that, instead of being shaped by forward-thinking conservationists, federal policy for migratory waterfowl had been written by market hunters. Just so, todayâ??s energy policies were fashioned by lobbyists from coal and power companies.
My solitude on the lake is disturbed by thoughts about this. Iâ??d rather not think about it, not speak up, just keep on fishing, but for me and others like me, the price of keeping the peace may be the loss of our country.

I anchor the boat in calm water, sheltered from the fierce wind by steep shore, and switch to minnows, hoping to take some walleyes for supper. I catch a couple of keepers and put them on ice, but next cast I tie into a fish that bends my rod in half. After a long battle I bring it alongside the boat. Itâ??s a smallmouth, six pounds if itâ??s an once, bronze and beautiful. Itâ??s not only the biggest smallmouth Iâ??ve ever caught, itâ??s the biggest Iâ??ve ever seen.

Itâ??s the easiest decision to release it and watch it disappear unharmed into the depths, but what does such a gesture amount to in the face of threats like the proposed power plant? Why should I, or anyone, act responsibly in the outdoors if a company like Excelsior Energy is given the go-ahead to kill our land and poison our water? Is conservation itself now irrelevant?

Am I myself, like Don Quixote, merely a madman tilting at windmills?

And how are we to power our civilization if we disallow developments such as the Mesaba Energy Project? I look to the treetops, the wind tearing through the leaves, the rollers on the lake. The answer, it appears to me, is in the wind.

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