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Rural communities are already being affected by a changing climate, and each community’s experiences and responses are unique. Because of the politically-charged nature of the term “climate change” it can be a difficult topic to discuss in rural communities, but addressing the impacts of extreme weather and a changing climate is necessary for community resilience. Last week, 18 residents of Itasca County, MN met for the second of three Rural Climate Dialogues across Minnesota. Few of the people 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 the northwoods and lakes – and concern for its future. 

The Rural Climate Dialogues are a joint effort between the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Jefferson Center to engage rural communities in creating bottom-up solutions to climate change. The 3-day 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 was for participants to better understand climate change impacts on Itasca County and create a set of recommendations for how the community can respond.

Over the first two days, participants heard from a wide range of speakers and local experts. First, Mark Seeley, University of Minnesota climatologist, 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.

Building on Seeley’s presentation of climate data, participants heard presentations from Brian Palik, a USDA Forest Service employee; John Latimer, a local phenologist; Tim Goeman, a DNR fisheries expert; Megan Christianson, Executive Director of Visit Grand Rapids; Julie Kennedy, the City Engineer; and Michael Duval, a DNR water expert. These presenters were chosen on the basis of community feedback over six months of lead-up work, which revealed that the most important assets to the residents of Itasca County are the woods, the water, and the workforce. The presentations focused on how climate change would impact (or is already impacting) those community assets. Each presenter also provided a suite of opportunities to respond to climate challenges.

On the final day of the Dialogue, participants streamlined the information from the first two days into a digestible report to share with the rest of the community. This report included the top challenges, opportunities, and actions for Itasca County to address climate impacts, as identified by the participants.

Top climate-related challenges identified for Itasca County included extreme temperature and precipitation reducing the life of capital assets and public infrastructure, emphasizing the need for a long-term perspective in natural resources management, and the need to deal with increased sediment and phosphorus in waterways from storm water runoff. Top opportunities included improving forest management so that forests are more adaptable to changing conditions, ensuring accessible climate information for decision makers at all levels, and changing management of natural systems to reflect a long-term (50+ years) perspective. To respond to the outlined challenges and opportunities, participants emphasized increasing energy efficiency in homes and businesses, planting native grasses and eliminating pesticide use on lawns to create habitat for birds and pollinators, addressing noncompliant septic systems, and increasing participation in public decision making meetings related to public infrastructure systems. 

At one point during the Dialogue, two ninth grade students joined the conversation to discuss what they’ve learned about climate change at school. They shared the local  climate impacts they found particularly striking, which included how fish populations are shifting and how the local forests would be impacted by the Emerald Ash Borer. After their presentation, one Dialogue participant said, “Global warming is coming, and if you young people get educated, our future looks a whole lot better.” This sentiment was wholeheartedly echoed by the group, who agreed that hearing from the high schoolers – the next generation – was one of the most powerful parts of the Dialogue.

By the end of the three-day process, participants voiced a sense of accomplishment about having come together with their neighbors to create actionable steps to empower their community to act on climate change. However, the goal of the Rural Climate Dialogues is not just to create a report, it’s to serve as a springboard for future action. Following the Dialogue, IATP and the Jefferson Center will remain involved with community members, helping to connect the community to resources and support than can help implement their action items. Since the first Rural Climate Dialogue in Morris, MN, the community applied for and received an Environmental Assistance Program grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to begin implementing some of their recommendations around climate adaptation and resilience. And most recently, the efforts in Morris won a 2015 Environmental Initiative Award.

At the end of the Itasca County Dialogue, one participant said, “I look at the last three days as hopefully a new beginning for this information to get out there for the general public. We have a lot of education that needs to be done in the community and surrounding areas. I’m glad I got to be a part of this.”