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The importance of grasslands

Marybeth Block has devoted her professional career to prairie protection and conservation. She and her siblings have placed 125 acres in a conservation easement on his land just upstream of Eagle Lake.

EAGLE LAKE -- Every spring, pairs of bobolinks make a roughly 6,000 mile trip from the southern tip of South America to nest on the grassland that Wayne and Shirley Block put into the Conservation Reserve Program about 1 ½ miles upstream of Eagle Lake in 1987.

The trip home to Kandiyohi County was a lot shorter for Marybeth Block.  She moved back to her family’s farm land in Kandiyohi County from Red Wing, where she’d been living for more than two decades while working on conservation projects for the state of Minnesota. She began her career with the Kandiyohi County Soils and Water Conservation District as the first female technician in the state.

“I wanted to come back to this landscape,’’ said Block, pointing to the prairie knolls and wetlands of her late parent's land.

The bobolinks and meadowlarks, occasional short-eared owls and other wildlife that have taken advantage of this grassland- largely a mix of brome grass with some sweet clover and alfalfa- are part of what called her home too.

She worked for many years promoting grassland protection and restoration as part of the state’s Prairie Plan, and decided to put that into practice here too.

With the CRP contract ending on the approximate, 125-acre site, she conferred with her three siblings on a plan to improve the mix of grasses and forbs on the land, restore some of its wetlands, and maintain family ownership of the land that their grandparents made their home farm in 1927.

The family agreed to sell the development and farming rights to the land to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and enroll the property into a perpetual, conservation easement. They’ll be responsible for its property taxes and keeping noxious weeds from the land.

The USFWS, in partnership with the Minnesota Land Trust will help the family restore this land to species that were likely found on prairies in this area before they were farmed. When the CRP program started in the 1980’s, its goals were to remove marginal lands from production and reduce soil erosion by planting perennial grass, said Block. In this case it was brome.

We do conservation much better today. Scott Glup, director with the USFWS Litchfield district office, said Marybeth Block and her siblings have developed a plan with lots of “cool stuff’’ to make this an example of what modern conservation can do. The erodible hills on the land will be seeded with a mix heavy with forbs. They will bloom and feed pollinators as well as wildlife.

Cool and warm season grasses will be seeded in patches elsewhere. Under terms of the easement, the cool season grasses can be hayed or grazed after July 15 each year, when grassland birds are no longer nesting. Marybeth Block and the family wanted the ability to hay and graze horses on some of the land, he explained.

Five small wetlands will be restored on the site. There are two, larger wetlands that had been restored when the land was originally placed into conservation. Plans call for scraping some of the topsoil that has eroded into these low areas over the years so that the original seedbed of native plants can sprout again.

The Block property is located adjacent to a 330-acre Bur Oak Lake Waterfowl Production Area managed by the USFWS, and a 125-acre Wildlife Management Area managed by he Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It provides connectivity for wildlife in an increasingly fragmented landscape.

Of the eight species of grassland birds native to Minnesota that the Minnesota DNR has monitored in the last decade, six are in serious decline, noted Block.

The conservation benefits of adding the Block property to his corridor were easy for Glup to see, but he also collected other numbers to win the support of local elected officials for the conservation easement.

All together, the easement will help the Block family keep 140 acres of land in perennial cover, much of it highly erodible. Glup calculated that the easement will keep 550 tons of soil -- or 43 dump truck loads -- from washing into Eagle Lake and the Hawk Creek Watershed each year.

Preventing the sediment and the nutrients they carry from reaching Eagle Lake is important to water quality and the recreational value of the lake. Glup looked up tax records and found that in 2015, the property taxes paid by the first tier of residences ringing the lake totaled over $1 million. When special assessments are subtracted, the total receipts to Kandiyohi County are $448,000 and $89,000 to the townships.

Citing the erodible nature of the upstream property, and the importance of water quality, the Eagle Lake Improvement Association sent a letter to the county last year to support the easement.

This land is the headwaters of the Hawk Creek watershed, and the Hawk Creek Watershed Project also joined in supporting the easement. Nearly three-fourths of the land upstream of Eagle Lake is cultivated.

“This is an area that needs protection because it can have significant negative downstream impacts,” wrote the Hawk Creek Watershed Project in support.

The Kandiyohi County board of commissioners approved the easement on a unanimous, 5-0 vote.

Work on the land is getting underway. It will be tilled and treated with herbicide before being seeded with the mixes of forbs and grasses.

Marybeth Block said it will likely be a year or more before the true benefits of this project can start to be seen. When they can, her hope is that other families and individuals who own land that is erodible and marginal for farming will take notice and consider doing what her family has done. She is confident that were her parents and grandparents still alive, they would be proud that the farm remains in the family and the family is helping protect pollinators, wildlife and water quality.

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