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The NRRI building in Duluth houses between 150 and 200 researchers. The building, once an air defense command center, was extensively remodeled. In its previous incarnation, "[the building] had all the charm of a bomb shelter," said the architect in charge of the renovation.
Keeping watch over Minnesota's resources
By June Kallestad
Developing a software program to find a more effective mosquito repellent. Restoring harvested peat lands to their nutrient-rich, soggy glory. Creating kit homes for disaster relief housing around the world.
These recent projects are just a few of many ways the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, meets the mission it accepted 20 years ago--to foster the economic development of Minnesota's natural resources in an environmentally sound manner to promote private sector employment.
Back in the early '80s, Minnesota's economy--which is largely dependent on natural resources--was taking a beating. The state was reeling from a domestic steel crisis that left about 13,000 workers unemployed on the Iron Range, and global competition was threatening the state's logging, pulp, and paper industries. To counteract the blow, and avoid a similar occurrence in the future, a group of researchers, legislators, and community members envisioned building a center that would study the economic impact and sustainability of Minnesota's minerals, forest products, peat, biomass, and water-related industries. This vision became a reality; in 1985, the Natural Resources Research Institute opened its doors in an abandoned Air Force building.
"For many years, we were something of a square peg in a round hole," says NRRI director Michael Lalich of the institute's unique focus, which had left many puzzled in the beginning. "No one was quite sure what to do with us at first. We were established to walk the line between a healthy economy and a healthy environment. This was a new concept. There was no particular model to follow."
But over the years, the old air-defense building with 20-foot ceilings and cavernous concrete spaces was filled with science laboratories and industrial-sized equipment. NRRI developed three program areas: the Center for Applied Research and Technology Development focusing on peat, minerals, taconite, forestry, and forest products; the Center for Water and the Environment studying lakes, rivers, streams, northern forests, and the Great Lakes; and the NRRI Business Group providing business and consulting services to small businesses or entrepreneurs. As expertise in NRRI grew, its facilities expanded to include a minerals research lab in Coleraine, Minnesota, to serve the taconite industries, a diatoms research lab in Ely, Minnesota, to study water quality issues, and a Fens Research Facility in Zim, Minnesota, to study peatland restoration.
In 20 years, NRRI has earned the respect of industry leaders, the academic community, and environmental watchdogs. And its reach is felt throughout the state and beyond.
A few NRRI success stories: Northern Contours of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, uses NRRI's expertise in wood products to perfect its European technique for making cabinets. The company has grown from two employees in 1996 to 430 employees in five facilities today. Apprise Technologies, Inc. and NaturNorth Technologies, both of Duluth, are two growing businesses that sprouted from research seeded at NRRI. State and federal land managers count on NRRI data on forest ecology, wetlands, and water for long-term planning. Wildlife like birds, moose, frogs, and lynx, are carefully studied to understand their habitat needs in the forests we share.
"Our state has an abundance of natural resources, and it is our responsibility to protect the environment for future generations, as well as to create new economic opportunities," says Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar. "Through its research, NRRI has been an active participant in revitalizing both areas. It's truly one of Minnesota's gems."
To learn more, see NRRI.