As a land-grant institution, the University of Minnesota has an
obligation to the citizens of the state to advance the public good.
Recently, the College of Natural Resources carried out this duty
on a grand scale. In collaboration with Twin Cities Public Television
(TPT), the college produced "Minnesota: A History of the Land."
This four-part documentary series tells the story of Minnesota's
beautiful and complex natural history and the people who helped
shape the landscape.
From glaciers forming lakes, to Native Americans and European settlers
reordering and reshaping the land, to present-day activists and
citizens working to restore Minnesota's ecology, the documentary
recalls the effects both nature and the human hand have had in altering
the land and how those changes impact the future of the state.
This series depended upon extensive University research, not only
by executive producer Barbara Coffin and her production team, but
28 University faculty and staff from 10 colleges and units across
the state. These advisors and interviewees contributed both their
knowledge of the state's unique ecology and their interpretations
of important lessons from the past.
A steward of the state
"I'm pretty familiar with Minnesota," said retired ecology,
evolution, and behavior professor John Tester. But he is being humble.
Tester has spent his entire life in this state--growing up, getting
an education, and devoting a career to the University of Minnesota
and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR)--making
him an ideal advisor for this project.
Tester worked at the University's Lake Itasca Forestry and Biological
Station as an undergraduate in 1949 and 1950. His doctoral thesis,
completed in 1960, examined the effects of burning, grazing, and
mowing as land management tools in prairies west of the park. His
management recommendations advocating controlled burns were controversial
for many years. Fire prevention was standard practice, based on
the assumption that inhibiting natural fires could protect prairies
and forests. But Tester understood, as did the Native Americans,
that controlled fires could clear the ground for the propagation
of prairie species and white pine. "The prairie was disappearing,
because the aspen was taking over," said Tester. Eventually,
controlled burns became widely accepted and native prairie species
returned to the park.
In the mid-1990s DNR officials asked Tester to draft a management
plan for the natural resources of Itasca State Park. "They
needed someone who was ecological, but not political," said
Tester. His plan advised controlled burns in the prairies and forests,
and a managed deer population to reestablish the white pine that
had been largely destroyed by logging, natural fire prevention,
and hungry deer.
He also researched the behavior of prairie toads west of Itasca
State Park and led a University team that developed the technique
of placing radio transmitters on animals to study their movements
and behavior. Many species, including hawks, owls, grouse, fish,
deer, red fox, squirrels, and turtles, were monitored.
In 1995, as a culmination of Tester's years of research in Minnesota,
he published Minnesota's Natural Heritage: An Ecological Perspective.
The book details the state's geologic history, climate, and three
major ecological systems--deciduous forest, coniferous forest, and
prairie--and how they function. Tester's book and his extensive
understanding of Minnesota's ecology were an invaluable resource
for "A History of the Land" production team researcher
Lansing Shepard and producers John Whitehead and Polly Fry.
Ultimately, Tester sees the production as a service to the people
of Minnesota. "I love it. I wish it could have been longer,"
said Tester. "And the photography is fantastic."
Advocating for a greener Minnesota
As a professor emeritus of geology on the Duluth campus, John Green
brought a slightly different perspective to the production. "I've
been mainly doing research on ancient rocks on the North Shore and
near Ely," said Green. His current research is a continuation
of the work he has been doing in the Lake Superior area since 1962.
"One of my interests has been in environmental geology,"
said Green. So it was not surprising that he became involved in
the environmental controversy related to the Reserve Mining Company.
In the 1960s, the company dumped 67,000 tons of taconite tailings
per day into Lake Superior at Silver Bay. When North Shore residents
began to protest the dumping, Green was there as faculty advisor
for UMD's Students for Environmental Defense, who demonstrated and
testified at hearings. "I was asked to be an expert witness,"
Green said of the case that would eventually end the dumping. As
shown in "A History of the Land," this fight against the
polluting of Lake Superior was inspirational to citizens, students,
and faculty. They realized they could work cooperatively to persevere
against a big company and make a change in the environmental health
of the state.
Today, Green continues to advocate for Minnesota's environment.
"Our current logging and motorized vehicle activities have
an impact on the forests," he said. "But there have been
improvements for logging," said Green. New equipment for harvesting
timber can lessen damage to the forest floor.
"Another concern is the impact on water quality of North Shore
streams from the increasing residential and recreational development
in these steeply-sloping watersheds," he added. And his water
quality concerns extend far south of Minnesota. "Erosion from
Minnesota farms has contributed to a large 'dead zone' in the Gulf
of Mexico," Green said. Fertilizers, pesticides, and other
agricultural pollutants drain into rivers and streams and accumulate
in the gulf, resulting in an oxygen-deprived area that cannot support
"But there has been some awakening and awareness, starting
with Arne Carlson's administration, when pollution problems and
land-use practices, for example, began to be addressed," said
Like Tester, Green was pleased with the outcome of the production.
"I think they did a very good job. There is so much in our
history that is directly concerned with people's relationship to
the land," said Green. "It will be a valuable educational
Getting the word out
From the beginning, the goal of this project has been to transfer
knowledge--"to develop ecological literacy by telling human
stories related to the land," said Coffin. Natural history
has been traditionally taught with books. Now, "A History of
the Land" offers a colorful, vivid spectrum of Minnesota's
natural history through images of the landscape, interviews with
experts, and reenactments of historic events. The series' Web site,
features interactive maps, and a viewer's guide and teachers' guide
for those who want to learn more.
"We live in a visual society. Television and video can be an
effective way to reach a broad audience," said Coffin. The
series showcases spectacular, sweeping aerial views of the landscape
taken by videographers hanging harnessed from a helicopter. "Viewing
the Minnesota landscape from high above offers us all an important
perspective. Our human imprint is clear," said Coffin. State-of-the-art
animations bring Minnesota's history alive by illustrating movement
of glaciers, recessions and advancements of forests and prairies,
and overall geographical changes of the land over the course of
Donors, including Mary Lee and the late Wallace Dayton, long-time
environmental philanthropists, had faith that this production was
an powerful way to educate Minnesotans about the importance of our
role as stewards of the land. Other major benefactors of this outreach
project were The McKnight Foundation, the MetroEnvironment Partnership
2000 of the Metropolitan Council, and the Minnesota Environmental
and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative
Commission on Minnesota Resources. Their contributions were essential
for the college to get the word out.
And the word is getting out. The February premiere broadcasts on
Public Broadcasting Service stations averaged 250,000 viewers statewide
on both nights.
The success of the production has led "A History of the Land's"
creative team to develop new productions about Minnesota's natural
history. A documentary film studio, History of the Land Productions,
is being set up at the University's Bell Museum of Natural History.
The creative team has started working on a new one-hour program
on the history of Minnesota forests, and is planning to create short
video clips on Minnesota's natural history for exhibits in the Bell
Museum. "We have a responsibility to the state to re-use and
re-package this extensive library of Minnesota footage," Coffin
said of the vast collection of material compiled for "A History
of the Land."
"Minnesota: A History of the Land," serves not only as
a foundation for new productions, but also a foundation for awareness
about the land. It shows how the land has changed people's perspectives;
as the people shaped the land, the land ultimately shaped its inhabitants.
Likewise, this production has the potential to shape people--to
redefine how citizens think about their natural resources, to compel
the people of Minnesota to give back to the land that has given
WRITTEN BY AMY DANIELSON