Dennis Anderson: Conservation groups and legislators alike mourn John Helland, driver of environment policy

Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune on

Published in Outdoors

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.''


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