The late August sun has set over Jasper Lake on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area near Ely, and a southerly breeze is rustling the aspen leaves and keeping the mosquitoes away. My husband Bill and I are sitting on the deck of the lodge in the Dayton family camp.
We had a dinner of grilled chicken and what Chuck Dayton generously called my “sacred” potato salad. For dessert, ripe peaches a neighbor dropped off in a big crate – fruits of a local fundraiser.
Earlier in the day, we sat on the screened porch and recorded Dayton’s memories about the passage and uses of the remarkable, pioneering laws that frame Minnesota’s environmental protection. It was the first in a series of ten interviews I will do for the Minnesota Foundational Environmental Laws Oral History Project. This is a project funded by the Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grant program; it will be housed in the Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Relaxed and fit at 77, Dayton gazes out at the world from under a thatch of bristly eyebrows, a friendly smile at the ready. He recalled his years as a young lawyer in the late 1960s. “I was with a good firm and I could see my future, but it was like being on a railroad track and knowing exactly where I was going for the next 50 years… This was the time of the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, and the anti-war movement, a time of exciting change and ferment, and I wanted to be part of that.” In 1971 he joined the staff of the fledgling Minnesota Public Interest Group, MPIRG, and devoted most of the rest of his professional career to legal work on the environment and on gender discrimination. As a member of the environmental committee of the Hennepin County Bar Association, he helped draft the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA), passed in 1971, and advocated for it in the Republican-controlled legislature. “You couldn’t pass these laws today,” he said. “You couldn’t even get a hearing. But this was a time when everybody wanted to be green.”
MERA and similar laws passed in other states were designed to remove a stumbling block for people who wanted to use the legal system to improve resource protection. Courts were rejecting lawsuits based on the plaintiff’s lack of “standing,” meaning they needed to show they were personally being harmed by the damage to the environment. “MERA said that citizens should be able to sue to protect natural resources without having to show some technical requirement of standing,” said Dayton.
In addition, and unlike other state laws passed during the same period, MERA included what Dayton calls a “substantive” requirement: it said that any project that was likely to harm the environment should not proceed unless there was no “feasible and prudent alternative,” and that economic considerations were immaterial.
Then, in 1973, Dayton worked on passage of the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), which required agencies and local governments to study the possible environmental impacts of proposed projects. Forty years later, this review process is still the focus of many battles, including the current fight over proposed copper-nickel mining in northeastern Minnesota. MEPA repeated the commitment of MERA that if there is a less-damaging alternative to a proposed project, that alternative should be selected, regardless of cost. Amazing.
MEPA lays out a two-stage environmental review process. The Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) is designed as a quick checklist to determine if a project has the potential to harm the environment; if it does, the much more detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is required, which among other things requires analysis of alternatives. But in most cases, the state accepts EAWs that determine there will be no significant environmental effects, often because existing rules and permitting requirements are expected to mitigate any impacts. This bypasses the alternatives analysis, which Dayton called the “heart” of the process. “It requires you to ask how the goal of the project be accomplished without having the adverse environmental impacts. What good does it do to look at the impacts if you don’t look at how you could do it differently?”
Despite this frustration, Dayton said both laws have been useful: MEPA has “provided a focus for citizens to bring their concerns to the state agencies,” and MERA is “instructive to corporations and agencies when they’re making a plan to realize that they’d better do it right or they might get sued.”
Dayton’s concern for the environment is built into his genes. He and his three brothers spent summers at Jasper Lake and in the Boundary Waters, helping their parents run a summer youth camp starting in 1956. In addition to relaxed time at the cabin, Dayton and his wife, historian Sara Evans, enjoy travel to interesting places; Dayton is an experienced sailor and once kayaked among the Greenland ice floes.
After our interview, a quick dip in Jasper Lake and dinner, Dayton took us out for a jaunt in the family pontoon boat. We admired the resident loon family, and the sudden arrival of two trumpeter swans produced so much excitement that Dayton barely got his camera focused in time for a quick shot.
This may turn out to be the most fun interview of the ten I plan to do, but I’m looking forward to hearing from others who helped to shape these basic environmental protections for Minnesota.
This oral history project was made possible in part by the people of Minnesota through a grant funded by an appropriation to the Minnesota Historical Society from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Any views, findings, opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Historical Society, or the Minnesota Historic Resources Advisory Committee.