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Prairie appreciation

justine wettschreck/Daily Globe Renowned wildlife photographer Jim Brandenburg spoke Tuesday morning during the unveiling of the interpretive kiosk at Touch the Sky Prairie in rural Luverne.

LUVERNE -- Standing in front of the newly unveiled information kiosk at the Touch the Sky Prairie Unit of the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge on Tuesday, renowned photographer Jim Brandenburg told a group of students he felt like a 10-year-old boy.

"I am happiest here," he said, looking out over the prairie.

A partnership between the Brandenburg Prairie Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) led to the Touch the Sky Prairie refuge, and Brandenburg said the acres of wetlands, prairie and rock outcrops located in rural Luverne are special to him, since it was essentially part of his backyard when he was a child.

"Having travelled around the world and seen so many people and things, I come back home and feel some of the proudest moments of my life -- of my career," Brandenburg said. "I'm the luckiest man I know."

Barry Christenson, district manager of the Windom Wetland District of FWS, greeted adults and students as they arrived at the Touch the Sky Prairie refuge, explaining they were all there to celebrate a small step toward their vision -- the unveiling of one of the three interpretive panels at the site.

Northern Tallgrass Prairie Refuge Manager Alice Hanley told a brief history of the refuges, explaining how they had been established in September 2000 to address the losses in the ecosystem and in bird habitat.

"It was also established to protect the remaining last pieces of tallgrass area," she said.

With six areas in Minnesota and two in Iowa, Hanley referred to the Touch the Sky Prairie site as the "crown jewel" of the district's 5,200 acres of prairie refuge. This particular site, she said covers about 1,000 acres.

Students on a trip in the Prairie Ecology Bus listened as Brandenburg spoke of following his dreams, which had eventually led to the kiosks he called the educational component of the site.

"We want to teach people about the prairie," he said.

The idea started Brandenburg's dream of becoming a wildlife photographer -- the best way, he said, of making a living while being outdoors.

As his career progressed, a gallery was established in Luverne.

"Then one day this guy from the government walked in," he said.

It was the first of many meetings with the first manager of the prairie refuge manager, Ron Cole.

"I brought him out here, and he stood up on one of these rocks with tears going down his face," Brandenburg said. "He was so moved by what he saw."

Eventually, that meeting led to the culmination of a dream Brandenburg had of protecting his beloved prairie.

"The little moments all came together," he said.

Last year, Brandenburg discovered a federally protected species of flower, several prairie fringed orchids, growing on the refuge.

He was delighted by the find, and shared his excitement with the students. In a field that was once used for grazing cattle and sheep, seeds of a flower that had been long vanished on the land had sprung forth again.

"So just plant those seeds, even if you don't know what will happen," Brandenburg told the students. "You might be surprised at what's possible."

The Touch the Sky Prairie site is open to the public and can be reached by going north on U.S. 75 out of Luverne for approximately four miles, then west on 171st Street for three miles. A parking area at the top of the hill is for visitors to the site.