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

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.

 

Minnesota’s rural sustainability movement has stayed hidden, in part, because the destinations haven’t been packaged to entice travelers. Few Twin Citians would drive all the way to Montevideo just to tour a turn-of-the-century print shop (A to Z Letterpress), but, if they could also watch waterfowl (at Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge), get a great cup of fair-trade coffee (at Java River Café), shop for handmade pottery (Tokheim Stoneware), and spend a night in a cottage with a live rooster for an alarm clock (Moonstone Farm), the trip may seem more attractive.

This past fall, Joannides and Olson loaded a bus with journalists, policy-makers, and community leaders to tour a few of the new Green Routes destinations along the Minnesota River Valley. Perhaps loaded isn’t quite the right word—the bus was about half full. The legislators in the group weren’t household names, neither were the two reporters. A newspaperman from India was aboard, but no one from the Twin Cities’ daily press.

The bus rolled past the wind-bent prairie grasses of Blue Earth County for a couple of hours before stopping at Morgan Creek Vineyards. If you ignored the corn stalks and the Northrup King and DeKalb signs, and perhaps squinted a bit, the hillside winery could have almost passed for Northern California.

Georg Marti and his wife, Paula, led the group around their farmstead, hiking past a faded red barn and rows of grape vines. Marti, a great-great-grandson of brewer August Schell, explained that Morgan Creek produced its first vintage in 1998 and now makes roughly 30,000 bottles a year, using 95 percent Minnesota-grown grapes. They keep their land healthy by applying organic pesticides and fungicides to the fruit, and have drawn up plans to install a solar-energy system.

The visitors sampled wines in the yeast-scented retail shop, one called Relativity, another Sweet Bliss. The wines don’t have the reputation of those made in Napa Valley, but you could get to Morgan Creek from Minneapolis, one guest noted, in the same amount of time it might take to get through security for a flight to California.

By the time the group returned to the Twin Cities, it had met some grass-fed cattle, stopped to look out over the Minnesota River, and toured an 1870s general store that still contained original pairs of bloomers and undelivered mail. The visitors had experienced some of the best of what the valley had to offer—the things that make it someplace—and left behind a minimal environmental impact.

With tourism making up 10 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, sustainable tourism could become an important tool for keeping rural economies alive, particularly as jobs in farming, mining, and forestry disappear. Chuck Lennon, spokesperson for the Minnesota Office of Tourism, says interest in green travel is growing, but still “embryonic,” and that Renewing the Countryside may have to be careful how it positions Green Routes so as not to offend the rest of the tourism industry. Of their tag line “authentic tourism,” Lennon chuckles, “Don’t spout that off at the tourism conference.” While there are many “gems” on the Green Routes, Lennon notes, there are some whose eco-ethic is less than apparent. “What the hell is this doing on here?” he asks of a seemingly non-descript fishing resort on one of the maps, “What do they do? Recycle their cans?”

The travel industry is still defining exactly what “responsible tourism” means. Not getting drunk? Making your own bed? The sophisticated travelers of this millennium—those who don’t like to think of themselves as fanny-pack-wearing, camera-toting tourists clogging up the world’s most popular attractions—demand the best of both worlds: guilt-free luxury. They want to have a local villager sell them a handmade rug—which they can unpack and admire back at their five-star hotel. Olson concedes that Green Routes travelers may have to adapt to the local culture, as visitors to Spain must plan around the daily siesta. “This isn’t Disney rural,” Olson says. “It’s real. It’s not for the extremely uptight traveler.”

Joannides and Olson don’t expect a mass exodus of shoppers from the Mall of America to the tiny organic-cotton clothing shop at Wildrose Farm in the Brainerd Lakes area. But, as interest grows in other states (Travel Green Wisconsin launched a pilot program last spring), they hope to take the website national over the next few years. It’s Olson’s dream, he says, that he might one day drive from the Twin Cities to, say Portland, relieving himself at compost toilets all along the way.

Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.

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