On a rainy Thursday morning, 18 residents of Itasca County gathered in Grand Rapids, MN to discuss the area’s weather and climate. Despite Grand Rapids’ rural nature, few of the participants in the room had met each other, but following brief introductions it was clear that they all shared a local sense of pride for the natural beauty of their northwoods and lakes.
The 3-day Rural Climate Dialogue process, based on the Citizens Jury model, moves quickly in introducing participants to each other and establishing discussion ground rules to encourage open and productive conversations about controversial subjects. The goal of this gathering is for participants to better understand climate change impacts on Itasca County and create a set of recommendations for how the community can respond.
The first speaker was Mark Seeley, University of Minnesota climatologist, who provided a weather history specifically tailored to north central Minnesota. The power of this presentation came from the localized data, which demonstrated that climate change, which is often viewed as a global and distant problem, is already showing up in northern Minnesota. In addition to explaining climate trends, Seeley also outlined efforts that have already happened to adapt to climate change in Minnesota, including retrofitting storm sewer systems to give them greater capacity, changing shoreline health management practices, adjusting public health efforts to accommodate heat waves and shifting allergy seasons, modifying fisheries management, adapting to shifting plant hardiness zones and changes in pests and pathogens, and more. The presentation was based on history and data – not models and projections – offering participants a solid knowledge base for engaging with the remaining speakers.
Next, Brian Palik from the USDA Forest Service spoke about climate change impacts on forests. This is a particularly important issue for Grand Rapids, where the forestry industry accounts for a large portion of the economy. The main problems outlined by Palik were the increase in new tree pests like the Emerald Ash Borer, overly dense pine forests and increasing drought, and shifting tree species. He outlined strategies for responding to these challenges, some of which regional forests and businesses are already implementing, such as evaluating replacement tree species and manually thinning forests.
Participants used the end of the day to discuss and synthesize what they had heard in the presentations and sort the information into challenges, opportunities, and actions. This transformed the formidable problems that had been presented during the day into manageable challenges. The day ended on a high note, with one participant commenting, “I didn’t realize so many other people cared about climate change – I am so glad we’re all here!”
Over the next two days, participants will hear from five more speakers and draft a Citizen’s Report of challenges, opportunities, and recommended actions for Itasca County to respond to climate change.