Picture of Willa Childress

Willa Childress

Taking back local control

In April, hundreds of Minnesotans gathered at the state capitol for the annual “Water Action Day,” where constituents meet with legislators on a range of issues that affect clean water.

On the short list? Local control over pesticides.

Preemption — when one level of government trumps the laws passed by another — has become a focal point for community organizing across social movements. From sanctuary cities to minimum wage laws, many of the policies we hear about in 2019 tie closely to preemption — whether it’s the federal government preempting state laws, or the state preempting municipalities.

For pesticides, the federal courts are clear: municipalities have the right to govern local pesticide laws, if they choose to do so. But in the late 1980s, industry lobbyists ran a national campaign to strip control away from localities. State by state, laws were passed — many using the same template language — to tie back the hands of communities who wanted to pass local pesticide laws.  

At PAN, we know that those who are closest to a problem have the best strategies for solving it. And this cookie-cutter approach keeps us from responding to issues that impact environment, health, and local economies.    

This year, Minnesotans are running a bold campaign to take back local control. Looking through history, it only makes sense that this state is a nexus of change.  

Minnesotans vs. Toxic Taters

Mantrap Township is a small community in the Central Sands region of Minnesota — a place where corporate agriculture has a strong foothold. R. D. Offutt (RDO), the world’s largest potato producer, farms the majority of land in this region. RDO doesn’t go light on pesticides — potato crops are sprayed by overhead planes every five to seven days during the growing season.

In 1993, Mantrap Township’s 450 residents passed local legislation regarding aerial spraying. The ordinance would have required applicators to get a spray permit sixty days before use, and disclose information on the risks, benefits, and alternatives to the pesticides being used. Sounds reasonable, right?

Not according to RDO and the state Agricultural Aircraft Association, who both fought the ordinance tooth and nail. And state courts had to agree — because state preemption laws had been passed just a few years before, Mantrap citizens suddenly had no right to make local laws over pesticide use in their own community.

Beekeepers join the fray

Twenty years later, Minnesota beekeepers joined the struggle against pesticide preemption. In 2013, three beekeepers in Minneapolis experienced acute hive kills, and their colony deaths were directly linked to drift from a nearby pesticide application.  

Beekeepers wanted to find a way to protect their livelihoods from future damage, but realized they couldn’t after learning about state preemption. The growing coalition worked with Minneapolis pollinator advocates to pass a city resolution that affirmed Minneapolis as a “pollinator-friendly city.” And among other changes, the resolution directed the City of Minneapolis to lobby for local control at the capitol.

Soon, “pollinator-friendly” cities were popping up all over Minnesota. In 2019, there are 40, more than any other state. And though actions vary city-by-city from increased pollinator habitat to decreased pesticides on city-owned property, the underlying message is the same: Minnesotan cities want their control back.

A sea change at the Capitol

For the last six years, Minneapolis representative Jim Davnie has followed orders from city governments, authoring a “half preemption” bill that would restore local control to four of Minnesota’s largest cities: Minneapolis, Rochester, St. Paul, and Duluth.

And for six years, that bill has been dead on arrival, garnering fierce opposition from industry lobbyists. Until 2019.

This year, we saw not one but two preemption bills. Davnie’s “half preemption” bill was joined by a bolder bill from Representative Jean Wagenius that would have granted all cities in Minnesota local control over pesticides.

Both bills received strong support, with legislators from all over Minnesota eager to sign on. Many saw this as an opportunity for localities to take on some of the responsibilities of addressing pollinator decline. Others knew this would allow communities to quickly respond to environmental health crises. But many affirmed that this was an important right of localities — and that the state shouldn’t interfere if a community wanted to go above and beyond a state standard.  

Under pressure from so many supporters, the “halfway there” bill was granted a hearing — and despite many testimonies from industry lobbyists claiming that local control would result in “pest emergencies,” the bill was accepted for inclusion in the House Agriculture Policy Omnibus Bill.

The fight isn’t over

But our local control bill isn’t a done deal until it passes through the Senate and the Governor signs it into law.

And around the state, communities lack lawmaking power against hazardous pesticide use—even though they are far from powerless. Almost thirty years later, families from Mantrap Township continue to fight against the kind of corporate farming that puts community health in danger, and beekeepers are still speaking out against bee-killing pesticides.

We know that delegating lawmaking power to four cities is just a first step in creating the kind of change we’re looking for.

But we’re building a powerful movement, despite corporate opposition. And we will continue to disrupt the balance of power and restore control to our communities.


Photo: Kevin Krejci | Flickr

Picture of Willa Childress

Willa Childress

Willa grew up on a small farm in rural Oregon. Her passion for environmental justice is deeply rooted in early experiences with ecological destruction, a rural affordable housing crisis, farmworker wage theft, and industry’s exploitation of working class people. In 2014, she coordinated the Mesa de Conversacion project in her hometown to generate restorative dialogue between Latinx and white community members. Experiences interning at the Oregon State Legislature and MN-based org The Advocates for Human Rights fueled her interest in political organizing. Willa leads PAN’s state-to-state policy organizing work, leveraging regional resources and strategies to build power between communities across the U.S.

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