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Broadband project teeters on brink; Kandiyohi County officials still hopeful

Video: Kandiyohi County hosts prairie summit, where state’s strategy to save prairie is well underway

Kevin Kotts, right, wildlife management director in Glenwood, described how fencing has been erected on a wildlife management area near Simon Lake near the Swift and Pope County border to allow grazing. Josh Kavanagh, left, of Ducks Unlimited, described work to improve water quality in the nearby water body. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny 2 / 4
Steve Chaplin, conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy, holds a deer shed he found while leading the prairie summit attendees through a prairie area near the Sheepberry-Fen Nature Conservancy property Tuesday in southern Pope County. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny 3 / 4
Linda Bormann, a land protection specialist with The Nature Conservancy, points out the diversity of plant species protected on prairie lands near the Sheepberry-Fen in southern Pope County. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny 4 / 4

SPICER — If Minnesota is to be successful in saving its disappearing prairie and grasslands, we’ll know it first in Kandiyohi County.

The state’s $3.5 billion Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan aims to strategically protect 2.2 million acres of prairie and grasslands in 36 core landscapes in the state.

Six of these areas are critical to the project, perhaps none so much as the glacial lakes region that runs along the Alexandria moraine from Sibley State Park near New London to Glacial Lakes State Park near Starbuck.

“They are special places,’’ said Steve Chaplin, conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy, in reference to the remaining prairie lands. He stood atop the Alexandria moraine at a point roughly midway between the two parks and addressed over 70 professionals with the Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pheasants Forever, The Nature Conservancy, county Soil and Water Conservation Districts and a mix of watershed and other, non-governmental conservation organizations on Tuesday.

They gathered Tuesday and Wednesday at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center to discuss the strategy for the partnership created among them over 1½ years.

The urgency for implementing the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan is only growing.

Minnesota is continuing to lose more grasslands than are being protected. “We’re not even close to where the plan wants to be,’’ said Matt Holland, Pheasant Forever, in opening the two-day summit.

“We know we have to elevate our conservation game,’’ he said.

The rallying call for the summit was sounded days earlier in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by outdoor writer Dennis Anderson. He advocated for an effective plan while warning that the fate of multiple species and habitats in the state is at stake.

The summit included a tour of many successful efforts within the glacial lakes region, and offered reasons for optimism.

Minnesota is fortunate to have the Outdoor Heritage funding to augment federal funding.

And while many landowners are putting conservation lands back into production due to today’s commodity prices, interest in conservation remains.

Tabor Hoek, with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, said last year was the second best year ever for the state’s Re-Invest in Minnesota program in terms of sign up.

Jason Garms, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, noted also that the state approved a $40 million allocation for RIM’s native prairie bank program to help landowners protect prairie lands.

If the prairie is to be saved, it will largely be done on private lands and especially, by supporting a grass based economy, or cattle grazing, according to the participants.

Stacy Salvevold, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has successfully worked with cattle producers in northern Kandiyohi and Pope counties to promote grazing and the preservation of prairie lands.

She is among those who remain optimistic.

“There’s great folks here,’’ she told those touring a Pope County site where cedars were cleared to restore prairie and allow grazing. “We’ve got to find them and we’ve got to work with them.’’

Enlisting support from hunters is critical as well. The state is testing the use of cattle grazing to manage some of its public grasslands. Kevin Kotts, DNR wildlife manager in Glenwood, has just erected four-strand, high tensile fencing in a wildlife management area near Simon Lake along the Pope and Swift County border. By this weekend, he was expecting 40 cow-calf pairs to begin grazing within it.

“We’ll try this one and see what kind of complaints we’re gonna get,’’ said Kotts. He believes that hunters will accept some grazing, particularly if the state can make known the benefits to pheasants and waterfowl by properly managing grasslands.

There’s also the challenge of letting the owners of hunting lands know that grasslands are ideal habitat for deer. Scott Glup, director of the USFWS district office in Litchfield, said “deer’’ is one of the major obstacles in interesting landowners in prairie restoration projects. People associate deer with trees, and do not realize the hunting benefits of restoring more prairie, he explained.

The need to build public support and understanding for the importance of a prairie landscape is probably the biggest need, according to some.

Marybeth Block, a Kandiyohi County native who began her career with the SWCD here summed it up as the DNR’s prairie coordinator: “We need to ignite this passion we have for this landscape in the general public.”

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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