A thermos of hot coffee and some hearty bread should keep usawake and our hunger at bay until late morning. The city sleeps as we wind along Duluth's back roads and head to a remote crossroad, known as Toivola, in southern St. Louis County. Nestled among peatlands, aspen forests, and marginal farmlands, this small Finnish community is at the eastern edge of the 9-square-mile tract my birding friends and I are surveying this June morning. We are documenting bird species for the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, a conservation project.
Exploring birds in an unfamiliar area excites us with the possibility of new discoveries. But the real treat for me is sharing the outing with two of Minnesota's most important living conservationists, Jan and John Green. Now in their early 80s, they keep up their enthusiasm for the outdoors in a way that is contagious.
Emerging from the car, Jan quickly calls out the number of savannah sparrows, sedge wrens, and bobolinks she hears singing in a nearby field. John, his gaze to the ground, identifies plants in bloom and speculates about the geological history of the soils in an abandoned gravel pit. Now overgrown with shrubs, the site provides habitat for clay-colored sparrows. Three of them are emphatically declaring their territorial boundaries with buzzy songs.
Birds and Rocks.
Jan is one of the state's most knowledgeable ornithologists, and John is one of the North Shore's preeminent geologists. Since arriving in Duluth nearly 60 years ago, they have been integral to countless conservation issues that have shaped the north woods, from expanding protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to challenging Reserve Mining's dumping of waste rock into Lake Superior. They have made substantial contributions to longer-term initiatives, including sustainably managing Minnesota's forests and developing the Superior Hiking Trail. Their dedication to maintaining the integrity of the Lake Superior region inspires a generation of conservationists who follow in their footsteps.
I remember my first conversation with Jan. It was the summer of 1976. I was helping survey bird populations in an area of northeastern Minnesota where copper-nickel mining was proposed. After weeks of bushwhacking through hazel shrubs in the uplands and slogging across spongy sphagnum moss in the bogs, my head was spinning with questions. Co-author of a new book on Minnesota birds, Jan was the logical person to call, but I was nervous. I was a young neophyte; she was a published author.
I gave her home in Duluth a ring, and within minutes she was sharing her insights as though we had known each other for years. She assured me that even skilled observers could be fooled into thinking the song of a chipping sparrow was a dark-eyed junco and confirmed the near impossibility of distinguishing red-eyed vireos from Philadelphia vireos. Her reassurances helped alleviate my personal misgivings and build my confidence. More important, the conversation began a lifelong friendship with a remarkable woman.
Soon afterward, I learned Jan's husband, John, was a well-known geologist and professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth with an equally stellar reputation for his scientific expertise, outdoor skills, and conservation ethic.
Before the bestseller Last Child in the Woods coined the term nature-deficit disorder, Jan and John were shining examples of the value of being outdoors at a young age. Born and raised in New England, both spent their childhoods exploring the region's woods and coastlines.
"One needs to be inoculated by a sense of the natural world so that it means something, so that it becomes a part of your spirit," reflects Jan. Her childhood included countless afternoons visiting a small pond and developing "a spiritual connection" with the life visible under the water's surface. John's outdoor time included long walks with his mother at their summer cottage where she instilled her love of nature as she pointed out flowers, trees, and birds.
Outdoor experiences led Jan and John to pursue science degrees. John was working on a PhD in geology at Harvard when Jan moved to Cambridge to pursue a master's in geology at Radcliffe. Connecting through the intercampus community, they were quickly smitten with one another and married in June 1958.
The newlyweds soon headed west, where John began his teaching and research career as a geology professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Adrift for a while, Jan found her solace in birdwatching. For Jan, the pursuit has never been about simply compiling a list of birds observed. By studying bird behaviors and habitat preferences, she says, "birdwatching becomes an opportunity to peek into nature's operations."
In time, the Duluth Bird Club became Jan's social circle and ornithology professor Jack Hofslund her mentor. She began writing for the state ornithological journal, The Loon, and working with birder Robert Janssen on a comprehensive book on Minnesota birds, published in 1975.
Woods and Wilderness.
Birds and forests have always been Jan's love. Meeting with loggers, mill operators, private landowners, and public agencies, she worked tirelessly to ensure that timber management activities address the needs of songbirds that depend on the northern forests for food and shelter. Part of this mission included writing another book, aptly titled Birds and Forests: A Management and Conservation Guide, published in 1995. And for many years, she served on the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, the entity entrusted with promoting sustainable use and enjoyment of forests.
Before the births of their two daughters, Jan assisted John in the field. Summers the couple paddled remote lakes to reach study sites in Superior National Forest's roadless area. Although the Boundary Waters Canoe Area became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964, some logging and recreational activities were still allowed. The battle to extend wilderness protection to the BWCA became Jan's first plunge into environmental activism.
The spark was a lecture in the early 1970s by Miron (Bud) Heinselman, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. As Jan listened, she was immediately engaged by his description of BWCA forest ecology and the threats posed by the lack of strong wilderness protection, especially to nearly 400,000 acres of old-growth virgin forests. Soon she was working side by side with Heinselman, attorney Chuck Dayton, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, and other volunteers. Their goals were clear: Eliminate logging and snowmobiling, restrict mining, and reduce the acreage of surface waters open to use by motorboats in the BWCA.
For nearly three years, Jan wore many hats. Key to the wilderness campaign was the need to form a national grassroots organization to lobby the U.S. Congress. Because canoeists must have a permit to enter the BWCA, Dayton suggested the permit holders might provide the foundation for such an organization. Once Superior National Forest granted access to the permits, Jan organized a cadre of volunteer secretaries and retired schoolteachers to meet at the national forest headquarters in Duluth. Portable typewriters in hand, they began to compile a list of every canoe paddler who had ever visited the BWCA. The feat took days, but the tactic paid off. Soon federal legislators began receiving mail urging wilderness protection of the BWCA—more mail than any other issue at the time.
"I never even heard of the BWCA until a few weeks ago!" said Rep. Phillip Burton of California, then chair of the subcommittee on national parks and recreation. He went on to play a major role in passage of the BWCA Wilderness Act of 1978.
"Because of her deep knowledge, her political savvy, and her ability to build trusting relationships, Jan was at the center of the small group that planned the successful strategy for the BWCA wilderness," Dayton says, reflecting on those days. "In my view she has always been the best volunteer environmentalist in Minnesota."
Jan credits her ability to become deeply engaged with so many issues to John, who understood and shared her motivations. In a field traditionally dominated by men, Jan Green has contributed substantially to Minnesota's conservation legacy.
Reading the Rocks.
Geology and the outdoors have defined John Green's passions and conservation work. Lake Superior's rocky shoreline and exposed bedrock provide an ideal laboratory for his geological interests, while the woods are his outdoor retreat. A teacher at heart, John has helped students and thousands of North Shore visitors to understand the geological events responsible for the region's awe-inspiring beauty.
"We have this really interesting geology, embedded in the region's history and lore," he says. "Indeed, if it wasn't for its unique geological history, the landscape wouldn't be so spectacular."
Geology on Display, his book written to interpret the geology of North Shore state parks, demonstrates his ability to translate complex scientific concepts for the public. "The geologic history of northeastern Minnesota," he wrote, "can be compared to the proverbial life of a soldier: long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror."
One of those moments of terror became his academic passion. One billion years ago, when the Earth's crust began to pull apart across a large expanse of the North American continent, spectacular lava flows occurred. The remaining volcanic rocks became the focus of John's research.
"John is internationally recognized now as an expert in the geochemistry of these Precambrian lava flows," says his colleague Jim Miller, associate professor of geology at UMD.
If you know where to look, you will find traces of John's efforts to interpret and preserve the region's geological history all along Highway 61 on the North Shore. Superior National Forest's visitor center in Grand Marais displays his geological map of Cook County. John championed the designation of Iona's Beach and Sugarloaf Point scientific and natural areas to protect as examples of the shoreline's geological past. And stop at Split Rock Lighthouse north of Two Harbors and you can see a video of John discussing many of the region's most striking features.
In the early 1960s, North Shore residents began to notice changes in the water along the lake's shoreline near Reserve Mining's Silver Bay taconite processing facility. The water there was becoming cloudy and green. Since the company began operating in 1955, pipes from the facility discharged mining waste directly into Lake Superior.
The Environmental Protection Agency discovered microscopic fibers in the discharge. The fibers, which resembled asbestos fibers known to cause cancer, were also being carried down shore into the drinking water of Two Harbors and Duluth.
The EPA filed a lawsuit in early 1972 to force the company to stop discharging into the lake. Reserve Mining countered that the fibers were natural and found throughout the watershed where the iron ore was mined and processed. A federal trial began in 1973. John was invited to a meeting to review and comment on the company's evidence. His extensive knowledge of the region's soils and rocks led him to conclude that the company's claims were erroneous: The only source for the large volume of fibers was the mined iron ore. The eventual outcome of this landmark case was the construction of a disposal site on land.
New mining initiatives now occupy some of John's time, including following and commenting on PolyMet's proposal to mine copper, nickel, and platinum.
Hiking has been one of John's favorite pastimes. When the Superior Hiking Trail Association began in 1986, the plan to develop a woodland trail was a natural draw for him. According to Gayle Coyer, the association's executive director, John had a major role scouting more than 100 miles of the nearly 300-mile trail. Old Scout Senior, as John is known, helped by hiking potential routes and finally marking the best route for construction. The section from Two Harbors to Duluth took nearly three years to route and construct.
"It's much more than mapping," Coyer says. "It's having a feel for the land, knowing how the trail should flow, and finding the scenic and natural features to route along the way."
For both of these inspiring individuals, developing an intimate knowledge of the region's birds, forests, and rocks has been critical to their success. "Passion has to be guided by an informed intelligence about what you are passionate about," notes John. "Passion may be inspiring, but knowledge changes minds."
Equally important has been their love of exploring the region's outdoors and freely sharing their wealth of knowledge.
"Lake Superior," Jan adds, "has defined us."
Our morning of exploration is nearly over. A palm warbler feeding its young and newly hatched spotted sandpiper chicks have been just some of the highlights. Our last stop is an active gravel pit. Jan stays by the car while John and I trek into the pit, hoping to find nesting bank swallows. Not only do we find swallows, but we also see a belted kingfisher sallying along an exposed bank, perhaps wary of entering what may be an active nest while we are nearby. We defer to the kingfisher and turn around. I'm ready for breakfast, but I'm in a gravel pit with a geologist. Suddenly, John is scaling rock piles and telling the geological stories that unfold as he examines individual rocks.
When we finally return to the car, Jan enthusiastically shares her observations of a pair of yellow warblers nesting nearby.
Like this morning, each outing with the Greens is a lesson in natural history, each conversation an engaging discussion of natural resource issues. And each visit is an opportunity to treasure this couple's contribution to Minnesota's conservation legacy.