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Tread Lightly

By mapping Minnesota’s sustainable rural business-from vineyards to solar-powered mini-golf courses-Green Routes itineraries promote local eco-tourism

Tread Lightly
Photo by Dan Page (illustration)

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AT FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA’S Blancaneaux Lodge in Belize, guests wake up in cabanas that run on hydroelectric power. They breakfast on fresh eggs and organic fruit from the lodge’s nearby garden. They paddle to remote Mayan burial caves and ride horseback through the rainforest, lush with giant palms and blossoms. This is eco-tourism at its grandest: a way of traveling that treads lightly on the environment, connects with indigenous culture, and benefits the local economy. And though it began in the ecologically threatened forests of Third World countries, it’s starting to sprout in Minnesota—albeit in a much different form.

On the outskirts of New Ulm, near the Auf Wiedersehen sign on Highway 37, the Putting Green mini-golf course puts the emphasis on “green.” It offers recreation, of course, but also educates golfers about environmental issues in the same way Mom used to slip a few peas in the macaroni and cheese to boost the nutritional value—that is to say, subtly. At one hole, golf balls travel into a metal pig’s snout and out the other end—a lesson in manure runoff. At another, golfers putt through a mock grain bin and gas pump to learn about ethanol. Inside the solar-powered concession stand, locally made soda (from Schell’s Brewery, natch) is served in biodegradable cups that end up in a compost pile. Visitors experience Minnesota without feeling like they’ve trampled all over it—typical Midwestern modesty, or ingenious sustainable business model?

In all its various incarnations, from whale-watching cruises in Antarctica to jungle treks in Costa Rica, eco-tourism is growing three times faster than the travel market as a whole—so it’s no surprise Minnesotans are jumping on the solar-powered bandwagon. Just as proponents in Africa hope that gorilla-tracking safaris will offer a long-term economic alternative to poaching and logging, activists in Minnesota see green travel as a way to strengthen rural economies. It’s an alternative to inviting ATV enthusiasts to run roughshod through the woods—or simply packing up and leaving. The Green Routes itineraries released this past spring by a local nonprofit are the first concerted effort to market sustainable destinations in greater Minnesota, encouraging travelers to visit their own backyard—in as low-impact a manner as possible.

Depending on your expectations, Jan Joannides and her husband, Brett Olson, may not look like advocates for sustainable rural development. The St. Paul couple aren’t Birkenstock-wearing back-to-the-landers, homeschooling their children and growing all their own vegetables. Nor do they look like the farmers they promote, clad in seed-company caps and coveralls. Olson, who resembles an older version of the actor Zach Braff, makes wisecracks as easily as he talks about white papers and business plans. With the soothing manner of a public-radio host, Joannides explains how her interest in green travel was piqued.

While working on a graduate-school thesis on innovative rural-land use, Joannides discovered what she calls a “hidden sustainability movement” in rural Minnesota: individuals, families, and communities revitalizing rural areas in ways that protected natural and cultural resources. Joannides and Olson, an art director, helped create Renewing the Countryside, a book and website about such Minnesotans. The book, which was published in 2001, soon became a series, expanding into Iowa, Washington, and North Dakota. The two founded a nonprofit, also named Renewing the Countryside, and became green consultants, organizing events, creating partnerships, and designing public-education campaigns to promote sustainable rural development.

This spring, Joannides and Olson launched what is perhaps their most ambitious project yet: six regional maps and a website, www.greenroutes.org, that string the state’s green tourist sites into travel itineraries. Joannides and Olson hope the website eventually will become “Google” for the green traveler, leading tourists to destinations that characterize regional flavor and operate in a sustainable manner. Typical Green Routes businesses—food co-ops, knitting shops, and B&Bs—are invisible to most passersby, too tiny to show up in guidebooks, on billboards, and on interstate exit signs. It might be decades, for example, before the Zagats or the Sterns discover Morton, Minnesota, population 442, and its authentic Mexican restaurant.

So Joannides and Olson took the task on themselves, asking rural communities, What makes you someplace rather than anyplace? Local committees reviewed applications from shops, farms, natural and cultural sites, and assessed their commitment to practicing environmental stewardship, supporting the local economy, and contributing to the community’s well-being. They also evaluated the quality of the goods and services. “I got tired of pinching my eyes shut and wishing the mom-and-pop shop I stopped at really did have good pie,” says Olson, an avowed road-trip lover. While marketing these sorts of destinations brings dollars into rural communities, it also benefits travelers seeking experiences rich with local color. In explaining the sense of someplace he searches for as a traveler, Olson describes a disappointing trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which he found to lack any specific feel of, well, Southernness. “You couldn’t really tell if you were in Brainerd, Gatlinburg, or Estes Park,” he complains. “It’s death-by-fudge tourism. Once you get a designated fudge shop you know you’re in trouble. You become anyplace.”

Increasingly, even small towns have their Wal-Marts and McDonald’s, taking on a homogeneity that offers little reason for travelers to stray from the Triptik and stop. Yet interest is growing in a slower, more authentic path. In 2006, the New York Times declared eco-tourism a “buzzword of the year,” and Lonely Planet, the guidebook publisher, debuted its Code Green edition, the cover portraying a Caucasian nose-to-nose with a dark-skinned, tattooed, aborigine. Joannides and Olson believe Americans are also looking for opportunities to travel closer to home, particularly the mostly well-heeled, well-traveled types that shop at food co-ops—some 50,000 strong in the Twin Cities.

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