WILLMAR -- Twenty-five years and going strong.
It's hard to believe that Pheasants Forever, a national conservation organization focused on pheasant, quail and other wildlife, celebrated its 25th anniversary in St. Paul two weeks ago.
Along with that fledgling start came the first out-state PF chapter in Kandiyohi County.
Since those first days, the men and women of this chapter have helped shape the perception of what a conservation group is about. Not just about hunting, but about restoring habitat that benefits all wildlife for years to come.
The hours of volunteer work paid off at the state convention this year, which was also held at the National Pheasant Fest in St. Paul, when the Kandiyohi County chapter was named the state's best.
"It was a total surprise," said chapter president Kevin Ochsendorf. "Dick Miller, the habitat chair, and myself were down there. All of a sudden they get to the end and they announce our chapter. It's a terrific honor to get named. We felt very lucky because there are a lot of good chapters out there that do a lot of good things."
Ochsendorf and Miller were also personally recognized for their work.
The chapter has put in a lot of effort over the past 25 years. According to statistics from the state office, the Kandiyohi County chapter has spent $1,147,621 on habitat and conservation education projects. It has tackled 531 projects totaling 6,174 acres, including 68 nesting cover projects, four land acquisition projects, three wetland restoration projects and 410 food/cover projects.
But like most organizations, the chapter started small and struggled to grow.
"When I started, we had about five or six people on the committee," said longtime committee member Tim Smith. "There were some people who did a really good job of holding it together for a few years."
But as they took on more projects, word spread and the numbers rose.
"After a few years, we started building up our numbers," Smith said. "It's been fun. My oldest son is the treasurer now. It's fun to see two generations in it now."
Adapting to habitat needs
Planting food plots and other cover for habitat was a mainstay project for conservation groups in the 1980s and early 1990s. But as the focus turned to habitat restoration and land management, PF was right there to get its hands dirty. A lot of the work now is done on state Wildlife Management Areas, where invasive species threaten upland game habitat.
"On the local level, it's stayed the way it always has been. The money we raise stays here and I think that's the strength of the whole organization."
The Kandiyohi Chapter has joined forces with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other conservation organizations on numerous projects in the area, including the Dalton Johnson WMA in the southeast corner of the county and Eagle WMA at Eagle Lake north of Willmar.
What's really changed in the last few years has been the purchasing of land for habitat restoration, not just working on land already owned or leased to the state.
"The last few years we've been more successful in getting more land acquisitions," Smith said. "There are more grants out there. The object is to get the money into the ground for habitat for birds."
One of the reasons for the shift to acquiring land now is economics, according to Jim Tetzloff, the chapter's education chairman.
"The biggest reason is because of land prices. It may not be much longer and we won't be able to afford it, even with matching grants. It might not be possible," he said.
Pheasants Forever has always prided itself on its outreach programs. Restoring habitat for future generations doesn't do any good if those next generations don't appreciate what they're getting.
"Education has always been a big focus of our group." Tetzloff said. "A lot of guys in the chapter have young kids and they want to make sure their kids have the same opportunities."
The Kandiyohi County chapter was one of the first to have a youth camp, according to Smith. The first one, as he recalls, was at the county fairgrounds. As the popularity has grown, it has relocated to Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.
More than volunteers
Despite all the members that devote hours to projects, fundraising and political lobbying, a lot of work couldn't be done without the ability to work with other entities and the monies that only a government can provide.
"That's real important," Ochsendorf said of the relationship PF has with government agencies like the DNR. "Those are the guys that tell us which areas they want worked on first. Jeff Miller and Leroy Dahlke (from the Willmar Wildlife office) have been very good to work with. They've really helped us in the land acquisition. It gets to be a long process with all the red tape. Scott Glup and the USFWS (Litchfield Office) have been great, also. They're the ones behind all the tree removal and getting back into the native prairie grasses."
The chapter also works with local organizations to put on the annual youth trap shoot held at the Willmar Trap Club.
For more information on the Kandiyohi County chapter, visit the website at www.kandipf.willmar.com.