Landmark book from 1995 by pioneering Minnesota conservationist gets update

©Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

John Tester, with his book "Minnesota's Natural Heritage," when it was published in 1995. - BRIAN PETERSON/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

MINNEAPOLIS — The voice of a Minnesotan who knew as much as anyone about the state’s ecology and spent a lifetime researching it and telling its story will echo again later next month.

John Tester died last November, two days shy of his 90th birthday. Most of those years filtered through the lens of the state’s outdoors. As a boy in a hunting family in Gibbon, Minn. As a wildlife scientist on the front edge, for example, of wildlife radio telemetry still used to this day. As a University of Minnesota professor trying to teach what was known about the state’s environment and how the pieces connect. To many, he was its embodiment.

Tester’s definitive 300-page guide of sorts, “Minnesota’s Natural Heritage,” was his attempt in 1995 to deliver it in one place, and remains a widely used textbook.

Said Tester at the time to the Star Tribune:

“I was frustrated because there was no reference to go to when you wanted to know something about the state in general. You had to have a stack of books: a bird book, a mammal book, a reptile and amphibian book. There was nothing on plants and not much on lakes and rivers.”

On its 25th anniversary, a new edition of the book comes out Dec. 29 from University of Minnesota Press.

Tester began work on the second edition in 2015, pulling together three main collaborators and editors who held him as colleague, mentor and friend.

Susan Galatowitsch runs the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at the university; Rebecca Montgomery is a researcher and professor in the Department of Forest Resources; and John Moriarty is senior manager of wildlife for Three Rivers Parks District.

Galatowitsch said Tester knew, as he did with his original, what he wanted in the update. He’d bring along newspaper clippings when they met every other month or so. The clips were attached to parts of the book. Tester thought they could have value. There were deep conservations, she said, about the voice of the book and keeping it accessible to readers — mindful of the hyper-politicized climate it would arrive in but also focused on the gains and losses behind the natural resources of today.

“He was sharp and opinionated all the way to the end of his life,” Galatowitsch said.

In an interview, edited below for length and clarity, Galatowitsch, Montgomery and Moriarty talked about their connections to Tester and why a fresh “Natural Heritage” was due.

“We didn’t need building from the ground up,” Galatowitsch said, “but instead to expand on good bones.”

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— Describe your connection to Tester and why you are involved in this new edition?

— Galatowitsch: John was a mentor to me early in my career on the University of Minnesota faculty. He introduced me to many of his favorite class field trip locations, we co-advised graduate students, and by example, shared how to make a real-world difference as a university professor.

I recall John’s quest to create the first edition — crafting text that would inspire and teach, collecting cabinets full of photos and drafting and redrafting figures, enlisting colleagues to vet all of the technical details. John’s mix of determination and delight resulted in a book that is valued by so many Minnesotans. I accepted the invitation to be involved because, after a couple of decades, an update was needed, and I was excited to be part of a team committed to the same ideals of the first edition. Also, we were fortunate that John was still available to be part of that team, to guide our efforts.

— Montgomery: I met John in the mid-2000s through a faculty dining club called Gown in Town, which was founded in 1909 and serves as a place for faculty to socialize off campus. John was a member and regular attendee. I use the first edition in my northern forests field ecology course. I also interact with a number of people at community colleges in Minnesota who use the book. I felt that given its popularity, impact and use that the book was due for an update. I proposed it to John. He was interested. I think he must have talked with John M., who was able to move it forward. At an early meeting we decided that we really needed someone who knew the prairies and wetlands and Sue graciously accepted our offer of collaboration. I was honored to work closely with John in the last years of his life to bring this second edition to reality. I’m sad that he is not here with us to see and hold and read the final version.

— Moriarty: I have known John as a friend and mentor since the mid-1980s when I worked at the Bell Museum. I used him as a resource on my first reptile and amphibian book, which came out about the same time as the first edition of “Minnesota’s Natural Heritage.” John would bring his classes to my parks for field trips and I eventually helped him teach his natural history of Minnesota class in 1997. We regularly met to stay in touch, often over lunch with retired cell biology professor Bob McKinnell. I used John’s book as the textbook while I taught at Metro State from 2008 to 2013. Around that time I started suggesting to John it was time for a revision. I found out Rebecca also was mentioning a revision to John.

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— Of Minnesota’s lost native ecosystems, such as prairie and wetland, is there one of chief concern to you?

— Galatowitsch: Historically, the landscape of western Minnesota was a mosaic of prairie and wetland that vexed European exploration and settlement yet supported an abundance of wildlife that awed them. It is now, together with adjacent areas of the Dakotas and Iowa, one of the most human-transformed landscapes on earth. The speed and thoroughness of that transformation is a fascinating part of Minnesota’s history. I’m a restoration ecologist, and so this landscape has been a chief concern for me — how can we restore some of our prairie-wetland complexes, within what is now a sea of agriculture, and do it in a way that supports biodiversity.

— Montgomery: I’m not sure I’d characterize any as lost ecosystems but all have suffered degradation and face threats in the future. I’m concerned about peatlands as their degradation can lead to release of significant carbon into the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change.

— Moriarty: I feel it is the loss of knowledge and history tied to the native landscapes. Several generations have grown up only knowing the cities and farm fields. Woods and prairies have always been small areas scattered across the landscape. It is difficult for people to comprehend the millions of acres of prairies, wetlands and big woods that have disappeared. The lost of history makes it harder to get the public to understand the reasons to protect and restore ecosystems. The second edition provides that information and history.

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— Was Tester ahead of his time when he raised climate change among the threats 25 years ago?

— Galatowitsch: John was far ahead of his time in bringing the threat of climate change down to earth. He connected the threat of climate change to the ecology of Minnesota and demonstrated it as a critical conservation issue — not something that would matter only to distant parts of the world.

— Montgomery: I’d say that his book likely played an important role putting climate change on the radar of the general public in Minnesota. I’m sure John knew the science at that time — the first Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change report came out in 1990. I was a freshman in college and I read it in my environmental science class. I went to a small school in California but expect John was teaching it here, too.

— Moriarty: Yes and no. Climate change was well understood by the scientific community 25 years ago but most of the information was in technical reports. His book brought that information to the public in an understandable way, which was ahead of its time.

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— The emphasis in dealing with myriad threats is adaptation — stakeholders building ecosystem resilience to buy time. Given that these stresses are human-caused, how can the public tangibly help preserve their natural heritage?

— Galatowitsch: One of the most important things about the first edition — and hopefully this new edition — is that by delving into the natural history of Minnesota’s ecosystems, more people appreciate and cherish them, and will be champions for their protection or restoration. Increasingly, conservation is less about purchasing land to set it aside and more about active management and restoration. Counteracting human-caused changes in the broader landscape means our ongoing stewardship will be crucial to restoring and sustaining the resilience of ecosystems. That is labor-intensive and so will depend greatly on citizen-based efforts. For many decades, that’s been the way we’ve done it in Minnesota.

— Montgomery: Regarding climate change, I think it is important not to forget mitigation. If we don’t stop the increase of greenhouse gases, we are headed for a very different environmental future, one for which our systems and societies are not built. I’ve been involved in climate change related work for 25 years and the trajectory of emissions hasn’t stopped. There is no evidence that we are moving to a low-emissions future, and adaptation is a short-term solution.

For me the No. 1 action is to support policies and policymakers to achieve zero emissions as soon as possible. Second, advocate for policy and policymakers that support sound conservation, management and restoration.

To do those things, you need to have hope for a different future. I think that the book gives accessible natural history and ecology about the places we love to everyone. Spending time in those places, sharing those places with others will build experiences and connections that provide hope for the hard work ahead.

— Moriarty: This is a tough question. There are a number of simple things that people can do, such as recycling, reducing chemical use, planting a pollinator garden and supporting conservation organizations that work on ecosystems. These things will make us more connected to the ecosystems but will not protect and restore enough land for the long term (thousands of years). We humans need to slow population growth, slow or stop climate change, and halt invasive species. Dealing with these three issues is difficult and politically charged. I would strongly encourage people to have no more than two children, greatly reduce the use of carbon-based fuels and eradicate or at least control invasive plants and animals that threaten ecosystems.

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— What’s one area or idea that resonates after working on this update?

— Galatowitsch: Over the past 25 years, the environmental success stories have outweighed the failures — despite long odds and increasing threats of things like habitat loss, climate change, invasive species. Often my revisions to the first edition were redrafting sections to document endangered species recovery, improvements to water quality and increasingly ambitious attempts at restoration of many kinds of ecosystems. Another key environmental success has been dramatically improved data about Minnesota’s species and environmental quality — crucial for prioritizing conservation action. A high proportion of the environmental successes of the past 25 years in Minnesota would not have been possible without support from the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources. In recent years, LCCMR has suffered needlessly from legislative dysfunction. If this dysfunction continues, the third edition of “Minnesota’s Natural Heritage” will be much bleaker.

— Montgomery: I would echo Sue. The forest chapter that I worked at times framed forestry as a threat rather than a partner to conservation and management of forest ecosystems. I rewrote a lot of these sections highlighting the important role of forestry in forest conservation and management. Since the book was written, ecological forestry has emerged as a dominant paradigm and forest certification has grown immensely. Climate change and other threats have come to the fore in state and federal agencies and in tribal governments and natural resource divisions. These governmental agencies are managing for diversity in the face of uncertainty and recognizing the positive impact of biodiversity for meeting goals and supporting the health and resilience of forests.

— Moriarty: That Minnesota has made great strides in protecting our environment with strong laws to protect land and water. This includes voluntarily increasing taxes to create the Legacy Amendment. We are still not making adequate progress. It seems like we are on a treadmill. We are working hard to protect and restore Minnesota’s ecosystems, but we don’t seem to be making much headway on the landscape.

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Virtual book launch: Bell Museum, 7 p.m. Jan. 21. Check for updates about details and registration at bellmuseum.umn.edu/events/.

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©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)