Republican authored keystone law in 1973
Part of a series based on interviews conducted for the Minnesota Foundational Environmental Laws oral history project, focusing on passage and uses of the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (1971) and the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (1973). The project is funded by the Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grant program; audio interviews and transcripts will be housed in the Kathryn A. Martin Library Archives and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
An Agate Original
In January, 2017, I drove more than two hours from Duluth to Princeton in the worst snowstorm of the season to talk with Bob Dunn. I was looking forward to the interview; he had been right at the top of my list of people to talk to. Our conversation had been postponed once already, so I was determined not to let the weather to get in my way.
I received a warm welcome outside the house from his daughter, Susan Dunn, who had been a good friend of mine years earlier when our kids were young. She shoveled a space in the driveway so my car could be safe from the snowplow. Inside, her dad was sitting in a chair by the window in the library. His grandfather had built this solid house full of spacious rooms, natural woodwork, and leaded glass back in 1904. Bob Dunn didn’t just live in his grandfather’s house; he was named after his distinguished ancestor, and had followed his footsteps into public life. Robert Campbell Dunn served in the Minnesota legislature from 1889 to 1918 and ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Republican in 1904.
One wall of the library is taken up with shelves loaded with history and nature books, including a multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln and several books about Theodore Roosevelt. Even at 94, Bob Dunn is a tall man with broad shoulders, a gentle but precise speaker and a man clearly grateful for a long life of public service, family doings, and outdoor pursuits.
Dunn grew up in Minneapolis, but as a kid spent a lot of time at this house in Princeton, and on fishing, hunting, canoeing, and camping trips farther north. After service in the Marines during World War II and Korea, with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Amherst College, Dunn moved to Princeton and went into the lumber business. In 1964, in a non-partisan election, he won a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives, and, caucusing with the Conservatives, immediately began working on such issues as Reserve Mining’s dumping of taconite tailings into Lake Superior, and harmful agricultural and forestry practices. In 1972 he was elected to the state Senate. This was the watershed year, when Democrats swept both houses of the legislature, taking control of the Senate for the first time in more than one hundred years. Normally the majority party would sponsor most of the bills, and take credit for their passage. “It was understandable,” Dunn explained: “They wanted to make a good showing.”
Dunn had been working for a couple of years on a bill to establish broad environmental policy for the state and to require environmental review of major development projects. He had pushed his bill through the House in 1971, but it had not even had a hearing in the Senate. During the interim, Dunn conducted a series of hearings to get both expert and citizen input on a range of environmental challenges facing the state. The meetings raised public awareness and served to lay the groundwork for broad political agreement on key issues.
Departure from the rules
As the 1973 session got under way, Democrat Jim Lord was named to chair the subcommittee that would hear the environmental policy bill. “He was the son of Miles Lord, the former state attorney general and judge. Jim was a first-termer, and this subcommittee was a pretty good assignment for him,” Dunn recalled. “He asked Majority Leader Nick Coleman what could he do about this, here I was, a Republican, carrying this bill and working very hard on it, and as I understand it Nick said, ‘Go ahead and let him do it.’”
So Dunn was the chief author in the Senate of the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act. In stirring language, the Act promised that the state would encourage “productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment,” spoke of the imperative to “fulfill the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations,” and pointed out the need to “practice thrift in the use of energy… preserve important existing natural habitats… reduce wasteful practices which generate solid wastes… minimize wasteful and unnecessary depletion of non-renewable resources.” One passage affirmed that “environmental amenities and values, whether quantified or not, will be given at least equal consideration in decision-making along with economic and technical consideration.” Major actions, public and private, that would significantly affect the quality of the environment were to be preceded by a detailed environmental study, and the law included quite a lot of detail on what these studies should cover. The basic requirement was that “no state action significantly affecting the quality of the environment shall be allowed, nor shall any permit… be granted… [which] is likely to cause pollution, impairment, or destruction of the air, water, land or other natural resources… so long as there is a feasible and prudent alternative… Economic considerations alone shall not justify such conduct.”
“…environmental amenities and values, whether quantified or not, will be given at least equal consideration in decision-making along with economic and technical consideration.”
It’s hard to imagine such aspirational language passing today. But in those days, environmentalism was a non-partisan value. Dunn said there was no serious opposition to his bill, although he chuckled as he recalled, “I did have one southern Minnesota Republican in the legislature come up to me and say, ‘I’d like to vote for your bill but I’m against the environment!’ How could that ever be? I had a hard time suppressing my laughter.”
Dunn’s bill anticipated that its lofty goals would be achieved under the guidance of an Environmental Quality Council (later changed to Environmental Quality Board), which would consist of three independent citizens who would be appointed by the governor and advised by relevant agency heads such as the Pollution Control Agency, Health Department, Agriculture Department, and others.
“Some of the people who headed the agencies weren’t very pleased with that,” Dunn recalled. The agency heads, the governor, and lobbyist Ted Shields, representing the Minnesota Association of Commerce and Industry, all wanted the Council to be composed only of agency heads. The fight over makeup of the EQC went on for weeks. In the end, the players arrived at a compromise, and the board would include agency heads and some citizen members. Currently there are nine agency heads, five citizen members, and a representative of the Metropolitan Council.
In Dunn’s vision, the EQC’s chair should be closely tied to the governor’s office, to make sure the executive branch was aware of developments and remained committed to proper execution of the law. “And that actually has never occurred, and that has been a disappointment,” said Dunn. Nearly twenty years after passage of the law, in 1990, Gov. Al Quie asked Dunn to chair the EQB (he had been appointed to the board by Gov. Rudy Perpich). “I was the first citizen chair of the EQB, and I told the governor I’d do it on one condition: I’m going to be constantly in touch with you and part of your operation. ‘No problem,’ he says. But it never worked out. I was very disappointed.”
In 1995 Dunn resigned from the board. “I would have stayed because I thought I could do some good, but to me it was a critical point.” The current legislature is considering bills that would change the makeup of the EQB and limit its responsibilities.
After sixteen years at the legislature, and “disenchanted with what was happening to the Republican party,” Dunn decided not to run for re-election to the Senate in 1980. But his public service did not end. One of the last pieces of legislation he shepherded was a wide-ranging measure dealing with municipal and hazardous waste. It established a waste management board tasked with finding ways to reduce waste and locate waste repositories. “I came back to the apartment the night we had the final conference committee meeting, and my wife asked me how it worked out. I said, ‘we got a bill but I don’t know who’s going to take that lousy job!’ Then Governor Quie called me, asked me to do it, and it didn’t appeal, but you don’t say ‘no.’” He served as chair of the Waste Management Board from 1980 to 1985, and most of the time he felt he was the least popular man in Minnesota, as he conducted a search for places to store hazardous waste. He also served on several other public and non-profit boards.
Dunn seemed discouraged by politics today. “I just can’t describe how totally unrealistic it is to not like government,” he said. “Remember Reagan said, ‘government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem?’ Well, what the devil kind of approach is that? The solution has clearly got to be government,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Now they’re all afraid of taxes and afraid of controls and they’re saying now under the Trump administration that environmental and other kinds of controls are devastating our economy. Really, that’s hardly the problem; the problem has been quite the opposite, that those people who don’t want to be controlled need to be controlled, in both the financial area and in the area of the environment. And there isn’t any kind of justification for the idea that environmental controls or even financial controls are devastating industry. In Minnesota we’ve had a great rebound from the recession!”
I pointed out that despite the challenges, Minnesota has been a leader in environmental protection, and he agreed. “I don’t want to appear too negative; it just feels we’re a little bit slower than we ought to be.” When a 94-year-old says we’re moving too slowly, it’s probably a good idea to pay attention.
A valued legacy
Two months after that January interview, I learned that Bob Dunn had died. I drove to Princeton again, to attend the funeral in the little First Congregational Church. Stained glass windows (one donated by a Dunn ancestor) bathed the crowd in cheering light. Bob’s son George told us that his dad’s favorite tree was the white pine, and that he had planted thousands of them at the family cabin near the North Shore of Lake Superior. Peter Gove, a key aide to former governor Wendell Anderson, said Dunn “was always there regardless of party for our natural resources and education.” Senator Dave Durenberger, a colleague of Dunn in that small group, moderate Republicans, gave his own personal and touching tribute. He described Dunn as a man who served in World War II, a man involved with his community, a family man, a church man. “We’ve learned so much from men like this,” he said. “Bob was always eager to learn from others and always willing to compromise.” It was an attitude that helped to produce the innovative Minnesota initiatives that were acknowledged in the iconic Time magazine cover of 1973, picturing a grinning Democratic Governor Wendy Anderson holding up a fish. “Bob gave us the state that works,” Durenberger said. “He showed us that the only thing good for any of us in the long run is what’s good for all of us.” He ended by speaking directly to Bob Dunn: “I want to be like you.”
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.