Anderson: Conservation groups, legislators mourn Helland, driver of environment policy

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It's unclear whether John Helland knew who Max Weber was or that Weber, a German sociologist who died in 1920, developed the first modern theory of bureaucracies.

Weber argued that bureaucracies are the most efficient way to organize human activity, and Helland, who spent nearly four decades laboring in Minnesota's Capitol, likely would concede if asked that his career had been that of a bureaucrat, and proudly so.

Helland, who died June 27 at age 76, and others like him in government, are the dutiful — and smart — ones who write the laws and policies that legislators oftentimes can only imagine.

Considered nearly as kin by many legislators during his 38 years as a chief researcher and policy analyst in the Minnesota House, Helland was the "gold standard'' of reliability, said Rick Hansen, chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee.

"His research was the foundation for many of our environmental laws,'' Hansen said. "No one ever questioned his analysis or his abilities. His work lives on for Minnesota.''

Arne Carlson, who served eight years in the Minnesota House (1971-79) and was later state auditor (1979-91) and governor (1991-99), knew Helland well.

"Legislators don't come up with a lot of ideas themselves to enact as law,'' Carlson said. "Usually, it's lobbyists or constituents. To take the best of those ideas, the ones legislators agree to, and turn them into law, that's what John did.''

Helland was an Edina High School graduate who signed on at the Capitol soon after finishing at the U as a history major. He was eventually detailed to the House committee that oversees environment and conservation policy — a fortuitous assignment for him and, as it turned out, for the state, given his longstanding appreciation for the natural world, rivers in particular.

In the decades since, until he retired in 2007, Helland sat at the elbow of Republicans and DFLers alike, preparing to distill their wishes into law while steadfastly remaining politically neutral.

"John had the right temperament for his job,'' said Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota. "He knew the history of major environment and conservation policy and law in Minnesota, and his job for legislators was to figure out what they wanted, determine a solution and move forward.''

So proficient was Helland in withholding his personal political beliefs that even his friends weren't privy to his leanings.

"He never talked about whether he agreed or disagreed with a policy, because his job was to be non-partisan,'' said Erik Wrede, who works for the Department of Natural Resources in parks and trails development. "He never talked about the pros and cons of a political party. After he retired, I knew his political leanings. But not before. He was by-the-books non-partisan.''

When Helland joined the Capitol workforce in 1969, the legislature was far less partisan and more productive than it is today.

Its 1973 session saw some of the state's most sweeping, and important, environment legislation enacted, and Helland played a key role in writing these laws and many that followed. Among these were the constitutional amendment to protect hunting and fishing and the many iterations over nearly a decade of what ultimately became the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which voters approved in 2008.

Helland's calm demeanor belied the intensity of his work, and his dedication to it, and each year when the Legislature disbanded, he disappeared with his canoe to decompress, often by himself, sometimes with his wife of 52 years, Linda.

"We courted while paddling the St. Croix River, which was probably John's favorite river,'' Linda said. "But over the years we've paddled or floated the Colorado River, the Smith River in Montana, also the Gallatin and Madison and Yellowstone Rivers in Montana, the Tennessee River, the Rogue River in Idaho, the Green River in Wyoming and, of course, the Mississippi. We also canoed in the Ozarks and in Maine. John always loved rivers and he had conservation heroes who loved them, too. Two were Minnesota's Sigurd Olson and Tim Palmer of Oregon, who had become a good friend of John's.''

An inveterate reader, Helland died in his favorite chair, some of his many books at his side. He had e-mailed his son, Matt, and daughter, Laura, about 11:30 p.m., and sometime thereafter passed away.

In addition to his family, including his four grandchildren, to whom he was devoted, Helland's death will be felt for years by conservation and environment-protection groups.

In addition to Conservation Minnesota, these include the DNR's Water Trails Citizen Advisory Committee (Helland was founder and chairman); the Rivers Council of Minnesota (former chairman); the Audubon Center of the Northwoods; the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (former chairman); and the River Management Society, among others.

"What John did during his career was a kind of a magic act,'' said Gary Botzek, a longtime conservation leader, activist and lobbyist at the Capitol. "He would have to listen to what legislators said over many committee hearings and determine whether they meant what they said. Then he would have to put it all into a law that a judge or court might someday review for its constitutionality or to determine whether it conflicts with other laws. Very few people can do it.

"It takes someone really dedicated to public service.''

***

John Helland's family and friends will celebrate his life in late September. Memorials are preferred to the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy; American Rivers; or the Wild Rivers Conservancy of the St. Croix and Namekagon.

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