Bemidji Mayor, Rita Albrecht shares her perspectives on the climate challenge
Pull into Bemidji and you know you’ve arrived in God’s Country. Area lakes rimmed by towering pines beckon all who arrive to forget their worries. That feeling continues as the friendly folks at Minnesota Nice Cafe serve up a hot cup of coffee and a trademark warm smile.
To put it simply, Bemidji is a place that leaves vacationers to face a sometimes seemingly insurmountable task—leaving.
For those fortunate enough to call Bemidji home, they recognize the importance of the area’s beautiful wild spaces for not only its timber and tourism industries, but for Leech Lake, Red Lake, and White Earth Indian Reservation residents, as well.
And, these wild spaces could all be impacted by the warming climate.
Bemidji Mayor, Rita Albrecht shares her perspective on how the climate challenge is affecting Bemidji, how both the city and its residents are taking action, and how her work on climate is connected to her children and grandchildren.
Let’s dive in.
Taking a forward-thinking approach to sustainability
ULLU: How is the climate challenge impacting the City of Bemidji today?
Mayor Albrecht: I’m a planner by trade and developing sustainable communities is one of our ethical benchmarks. So, when I think about climate change and the planning we need to do to address it, I think about sustainability and resiliency.
I recognize that our climate is changing. I also recognize that, as a community, we need to be thinking not only about the changes that are occurring right now, but the changes that will occur 50 years into the future—even seven generations ahead.
When I was working for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, our agency was certainly asking the question, “What’s our plan?”
In forestry, which is near and dear to my heart here in Bemidji, we asked what will the forest look like in 50 years?
We’re planting trees today so that we’ll have a forest to cut in fifty years. So, now we’re starting to consider the changes that are occurring in our climate and how that might impact the species of trees that we plant. We’re harvesting those trees for our paper mills and board plants, after all. Are those trees still going to be viable? Should we still be planting those trees today?
Saving energy—and money—as a city
ULLU: What are some of the things that you’re working on now to reduce climate impacts in Bemidji?
Mayor Albrecht: We’re taking several approaches here.
We have a community volunteer group, and they serve as our sustainability committee. They’re doing the heavy lifting as far community outreach and community education are concerned.
As a city, we’re taking lots of small steps to make an impact, and the Green Steps Cities is a good example of that.
I think the way that cities can be really engaged is to reduce their energy use.
One of the things we’ve done is we’ve taken on the Guaranteed Energy Savings Program with the Department of Commerce. We’ve reduced energy use in all of our buildings, our streetlights, and more. That’s one step. And, not only does it reduce our carbon footprint, these projects save the city about $140,000 per year and $3.5M over the life of the project.
Of course, I think there is more we can do. Retrofitting some of our buildings with alternative energy sources is one example.
I think the future asks that we figure out how we reduce our energy consumption further—both as a city, as well as on an individual resident-basis.
Supporting individual and community climate action
ULLU: Are Bemidji residents taking climate action? And, how is the city providing support for residents to live in a climate-smart way?
Mayor Albrecht: Yes, absolutely.
For example, residents involved in the Citizen Climate Lobby brought forward a carbon fee and dividend policy, and we provided a resolution that supported its passing by the U.S. Congress. That policy would be one way to help folks pay for energy efficiency and reduce their carbon footprint.
At the city level, our planning office rewrote the local residential area ordinance to allow solar panels. That’s just one way we can encourage folks to think about generating alternative energy for their own homes.
Whether you’re managing a city or you’re a resident taking individual action, it’s important to remember that, when it comes to taking climate action, it’s not just one thing. You can’t eat an elephant in one bite; it takes a lot of little bites. Change happens through a series of small steps that, when taken together, can make a big impact. That’s what we’re trying to do here.
Considering the impacts of climate on future generations of Minnesotans
ULLU: As you think about the climate, what challenges do you see on the horizon?
Mayor Albrecht: I have four grandchildren—and I have a fifth grandchild on the way. So, I often think about my children and my grandchildren. What is the world going to look like when they’re my age? It’s going to be completely different.
I want them to be able to experience our natural resources, just as I did when I was growing up and like I do now as an adult.
One thing I think about is that Minnesota right now is sort of at the zenith. We have lots of water, we have great weather, and we might be attractive to folks from across the country looking to make a move—especially as our climate changes.
I’m concerned that our natural resources will take a hit as a result. Right now, we have lots of public access to public land, and I would say that’s our badge of honor in Minnesota—clean water and access to public land. As our state grows, there will be pressure to reduce our public lands—to make them available for development—and all of that will have an impact.
Observing climate changes in our backyards
ULLU: What would you like people to understand about the climate challenge?
Mayor Albrecht: Science and climate don’t have partisan values. I would like to see folks leave their partisanship at the door and think about what’s happening around them.
For example, in the Red River Basin, just to the west of us here in Bemidji—that used to all be wheat growing up there. Now, we have corn. Before, corn simply couldn’t grow there because the growing season was too short.
Two things have happened. One is that science has developed varieties of corn that mature more quickly. Second, our growing season has lengthened.
I’m a gardener and, even in my yard, I’m seeing changes. People can recognize some flowers and plants grow here now that never used to thrive in northern Minnesota.
I remember growing up in the middle of Koochiching County, which is forty miles from the Canadian border. My mom was an avid gardener, and she used to try really hard to get 60-day corn to grow. The last killing frost was usually in the first week of June, and the first killing frost was by the 15th of August. She figured that was the last day to get anything in.
Now, we often don’t have a killing frost in Bemidji until the end of September. That’s a huge difference from what I experienced growing up. All of a sudden, we have six more weeks of growing season—I personally have observed that.
So, I think what I would say to individuals who might be questioning what’s happening—just start tracking what you’re observing in your own backyard.
Are you lucky enough to call Bemidji home? Have you vacationed here? ULLU would love to hear all about it! Tell us about your favorite Bemidji-area places to connect with people and the planet. You’ll find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.