Jerry Niemi says he never expected to stay in Duluth, his hometown — not after receiving his Ph.D. from Florida State University and studying in Finland.
There was a big world of birds out there to be studied, and the budding ornithologist was ready to explore.
“I was a Central Hillside kid. Central High School. Got my bachelor's and master's from UMD. But if you’d have told me I’d spend my career here, I’d have said you were crazy,’’ Niemi said this week.
But Niemi ended up back in Duluth after finishing his degrees, landing a job as part of the original scientific research staff at the fledgling Natural Resources Research Institute — an arm of the University of Minnesota Duluth created by lawmakers and then Gov. Rudy Perpich to help rescue northern Minnesota’s faltering natural-resource-based economy. By 1984 employment in the iron mining industry had been cut in half from the heyday in the 1970s, and trees in northern forests were getting old and falling down without being used in any mill.
Niemi, 68, retired last week after 35 years with the NRRI, including much of that stint as chief natural resource scientist — head of the institute's Center for Water and the Environment. All that time he was also building his resume as one of the upper Midwest’s premier forest bird experts. He also taught introductory ornithology and conservation biology to undergrads on the UMD campus.
It was Niemi’s work for what is now Xcel Energy, studying the impact of high-voltage power lines on birds in spruce bog forests in Minnesota and Finland that got him recognized by the NRRI organizers.
The NRRI was formed specifically to find new ways to turn the region’s natural resources into products and jobs. But, in what is its most unique attribute, NRRI’s mission statement demands that natural resource development be done in an ecologically sustainable way.
“That meant that you might have the greatest idea in the world’’ to use trees or peat or minerals and create jobs, Niemi said. “But if it was going to do more harm than good, it wasn't going to fly. Our job is to find out what would happen before someone tried something.”
Niemi cited NRRI’s work in the mid-1990s Generic Environmental Impact Statement on logging in Minnesota forests. It took years of research but scientists and economists created a document that showed what impact various levels of tree cutting would have — how many million cords of wood could be “safely” cut each year — just as the state’s timber industry was looking to expand with more cutting and more mills.
“That’s probably one of our crowning achievements. We did a lot of the baseline research for the GEIS, and it directly linked natural resources and economic development,’’ Niemi noted.
The science drew a line beyond which cutting more trees would damage waterways, diminish bird and wildlife species, change the landscape and even impact aesthetics and tourism.
Rolf Weberg, NRRI executive director, said the Generic Environmental Impact Statement on timber harvesting set the gold standard for applied natural resources research. The basic science on the forest environment “had everything to do with creating jobs because it’s much more expensive to go back and fix a problem you created then to avoid the problem in the first place,’’ Weberg said. The research showed how to avoid the problems of logging too much or in the wrong places. (The issue has since become less intense with Minnesota mills closing or shrinking in recent years and the appetite for Minnesota trees declining, namely due to international competition.)
Niemi said NRRI scientists would often disagree with the economic development wing of NRRI but that it was never the scientist's job to advocate against ideas or projects, only to show what the impact might be. That’s happening right now, he noted, with mining issues. Some NRRI scientists are developing new ways to develop valuable minerals while others are looking at how that development might impact land, air, wildlife and water.
“Our job is to show what we think will happen if you do something” with Minnesota's natural resources, Niemi said. “Whether (the proposed project) happens or not, that’s up to society to decide.”
Niemi has continued to study how forest management and logging impact dozens of forest bird species, like the golden-winged warbler — a threatened species nationwide that is thriving in younger forests in northern Minnesota while declining in most other places. In this case it turns out the warblers thrive in areas where timber harvest occurred on UPM-Blandin Paper Co. land in Itasca County, where land managers are cooperating with researchers to support wildlife. Niemi’s research team documented what kind of forest and forest management there might be copied in other areas to increase their golden-winged warbler numbers.
Niemi also was instrumental in the NRRI landing an ongoing contract more than a decade ago from the Environmental Protection Agency, a $6 million grant to study Great Lakes coastal ecology. The project involved 27 scientists across many agencies and research groups, and UMD beat out some of the nation’s most prestigious universities to get the job. Followup research on the project continues.
“We won it because of the quality of people we have at NRRI,” Niemi said. “I love that UMD has a great Division 1 hockey team now. But we’ve had great Division 1 scientists for decades.”
Weberg said Niemi was “foundational’’ to the high standards at NRRI but that he also left a lasting legacy. Niemi had more than 40 graduate students study under him over the decades at NRRI. One of those, Alexis Grinde, is now continuing Niemi’s forest bird work at NRRI.
Niemi is leaving a legacy of "developing students, programs and data that have impacted good decisions for forests and natural resources and natural resource jobs that will last for decades,’’ Weberg said.
Niemi and his wife, Bonnie, plan on staying in Duluth in retirement but will continue to travel to see birds in other places, from South America to a trip later this month to Alaska where he’ll attend the American Ornithologists Union annual meeting.
And Niemi is still working at birding, too. He’s writing a comprehensive, 600-plus-page book “Breeding Birds of Minnesota’’ which he’s co-authoring with legendary Duluth conservationist and birder Jan Green and Lee Pfannmuller, former head of the ecological services division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The book is due out late in 2020.
“So I guess I’m not really retiring,’’ Niemi said, but quickly noted his trip to Alaska wouldn’t just be about birding. “I’m going to go fishing, too.”