Wildlife, ag shouldn't compete
HERON LAKE -- Finding a balance between conservation practices and production agriculture took center stage Wednesday night and Thursday morning, as the public weighed in on the efforts of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
The 12-member council is tasked with identifying and funding projects across Minnesota that protect, enhance and restore wildlife. It receives one-third of the funds raised through the special three-eighths of 1 percent state sales tax implemented in July 2009. That money is awarded to groups through an application process, with applications for the next round of funding due July 15.
In Heron Lake Thursday morning, a round-table discussion including 20 panelists representing everything from watershed and conservation districts to the Department of Natural Resources, Pheasants Forever, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and leading farm organizations debated conservation issues in southwest Minnesota.
Mark Matuska, a Heron Lake resident and employee of the DNR, said there are 13 million acres in the 32 counties that make up southwest Minnesota. Of that, 160,000 acres are in Waterfowl Protection Areas or Wildlife Management Areas.
"In this area, there isn't a whole lot of land that is owned by the State of Minnesota -- less than 3 percent, and about half of that is water," Matuska said. "Down here, we could sure use more acquisition dollars to provide recreation and protect some of the waters in this part of the state."
Marilyn Bernhardson, director of the Redwood County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), said that county has less than 1 percent of its natural wetlands remaining. What once was prime pheasant hunting in the state is no longer, she said, adding that programs like Reinvest In Minnesota and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program are helping to boost bird numbers once again.
"RIM and CREP have proven that there can be a balance between agriculture and wildlife," Bernhardson said.
As some on the panel spoke of the need for more prairie potholes, pheasant habitat and funding to restore basins, Minnesota Farmer's Union President Doug Peterson suggested that perhaps the first step would be to do an inventory mapping that identifies the most suitable lands for conservation practices.
"Farmers are concerned -- they're concerned about competition for land," Peterson said. "You have to be able to live and make a profit on the land. I think there has to be an understanding between wildlife groups and producers."
Ron Kuecker, a Cottonwood County Commissioner, said whenever there's opposition to a land acquisition in his county it is because good farm land is being taken out of production.
While a payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) is made on land transferred to the DNR, Kuecker was concerned with the state's ability to keep up with rising land values.
"In Cottonwood County, Wildlife Management Area land is valued at $2,800 per acre. Next year, it will be valued at $4,000 per acre," Kuecker said. "That means PILT payments are going to go up considerably. How long will the State of Minnesota be willing to pay that?"
Rather than focus too much effort on land acquisition, one suggestion made several times on Thursday was to put more emphasis on working with landowners to implement practices on their farms.
"Our key to success is finding the right programs for the landowners," said Ross Behrends, a technician with the Heron Lake Watershed District. "We need to steer toward user-friendly, simple programs and be willing to look at programs that are nontraditional."
Getting more landowners to do conservation practices, however, will only happen if trust can be built between landowners and the agencies that help implement the programs.
"Success has got to have trust," said Kevin Paap, president of Minnesota Farm Bureau. "Farm Bureau believes in voluntary, incentive-based, locally designed and implemented -- with some technical and cost-share resources -- projects. If you don't have those, it might not work."
Paap said farmers have a moral obligation to meet the global food demand. He spoke of frustrations in clearing corn stalk residue from tillage equipment this spring and, though he said he appreciates the benefits of residue, practices need to make economic sense to farmers.
One of the suggestions that garnered some interest Thursday was the ability to hay and graze conservation lands after the nesting season has ended.
Tabor Hoek, a member of the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), said the state needs more options than LSOHC's requirement that land be permanently protected. He said programs like harvesting for biomass and seed production would work well on conservation lands.
Regardless of what direction the council takes in its quest to improve and restore habitat, DNR representative Wayne Edgerton said the government will "never own enough land in this part of the state to have a big impact."
"Private land is really the key opportunity or challenge, depending on how you look at it," Edgerton said. "We need to work with landowners to get things done. The key tool is good stewardship of the land."
Scott Rall, an LSOHC board member and Worthington resident, said in closing Thursday that the council is trying to maximize every dollar that comes into the legacy fund.
"I'm very proud of the accomplishments we've made," he said. "At the end of the day -- 23 years from now -- the citizens of Minnesota will be well served with the results of the citizen council and the sales tax."
Public comment received
Wednesday night in Worthington, members of the LSOHC listened to citizen input on everything from a TMDL study on Lake Okabena, to controlling geese populations on Lake Ocheda.
Craig Bergh, vice president of the Lake Okabena Improvement Association, said he has witnessed algae blooms on the Worthington lake from as early as March 15 through the end of October. He wants to see a TMDL study conducted to determine the source of excess nutrients getting into the lake so that the group can begin to address the issues.
"We don't know where the nutrients are coming from -- we have no idea," Bergh told council members and legislators in attendance.
District 21B Rep. Paul Torkelson said the challenge at the state level is determining what lakes should be studied first. He said recent discussions have centered on dividing Minnesota into 81 watersheds and putting each one on a 10-year cycle. The idea behind the concept would be to implement practices that would have a greater impact or benefit on the entire watershed, he said.
Dave Vander Kooi, a rural Worthington dairy farmer, spoke Wednesday about his concerns with groups like Pheasants Forever driving up the cost of land, making it difficult for young people to get into farming.
"I think Pheasants Forever money could be better spent than on areas that aren't prime farm ground," Vander Kooi said. "Some of the money might not need to be spent in this area."
He also spoke of crop damage done by wildlife, specifically geese, on land he farms along Lake Ocheda. There, he said geese will destroy 10 acres in a matter of a couple of days.
Chuck Nystrom, owner of Ocheda Orchard, also spoke of problems with geese on his land.
"I love seeing wildlife, but I don't love seeing them in my field," Nystrom said. "I'd like to see some of the funding go toward compensation to landowners."
Other ideas presented to the council Wednesday night included earmarking some funds for general recreation on lakes and awarding funds for maintenance of wetlands and prairies.
On the Net: