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Landowner turns to Belgian horses for prairie restoration

ECHO -- Kurt Arner was working on a horse-powered dairy farm near Viroqua, Wis., liked what he saw, and traded in his BMW for his own horses.

"It was a good trade," said Arner of his 1978 swap.

He's been relying on horsepower ever since.

His stable of seven Belgian and Belgian-cross horses provide the power on his small farm outside of Montevideo. "I raise my own power," said Arner of his sustainable farming practices.

Yet the teams earn much of their keep in the winter, when they help with the selective harvest of timber in woodlands throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Horses provide the best means of selective harvesting in remote locations and where the owners of the property want to protect the environmental integrity of the land, he explained.

That's exactly what brought Arner and a team of Belgians, named Mike and Joe, to the Lentz Farm property downstream of the Upper Sioux Agency State Park at the end of May.

"It's a powerful place," said Gary Lentz of the river bluff property where a small creek begins its tumble to the Minnesota River.

With the exception of possibly a few acres, it has never seen a plow. "They call it Rock Valley for a reason," said Lentz of the river valley area where the land is located.

He is the owner of the property, but originally his father Ray and a friend had joined to acquire the 160-acre site.

It's one of the larger, native prairie tracts within a 50-60 mile radius, and Gary and his father remain committed to keeping it that way. It holds a diversity of native prairie plants, enough so that a Department of Natural Resource specialist with the Scientific and Natural Area program described it as a prairie of "high statewide significance."

The Lentz's have shunned lots of offers from those who would like to build houses to take advantage of its scenic vista.

But a different sort of encroachment has occurred: Red cedar has taken advantage of the absence of fire disturbance and invaded this prairie. Ray Lentz said the landscape was almost devoid of red cedars until about 20 years ago; the trees almost seem to have exploded in numbers in more recent years.

With help from friend Ron Hanson of rural Sacred Heart, Gary Lentz has taken a chainsaw to nearly 11 acres worth of cedar trees.

Last week, Hanson and Lentz hooked the felled cedars by twos and threes with chains. Load-by-load, Arner and his Belgians dragged them to burn piles.

The only sounds were Arner's commands to the horses and the "swoosh" of dried branches being raked through the grass behind the steady pull of the big Belgians. Arner said Mike and Joe weigh 2,000 and 2,100 pounds. Only the friction of the tree branches on the ground kept them from hauling even larger loads than the estimated 1,000-2,000 pounds they moved with each load.

The horses haul much heavier loads on the frozen landscapes of winter. In one case, he's watched his horses pull 6,000 pounds of red pine over frozen ground.

Lentz has contracted with Great River Greening of St. Paul to develop a management plan for the prairie site. He's also working with the National Resource and Conservation Service in Yellow Medicine County and the Department of Natural Resources. He's received some funding help through the NRCS for the cedar removal.

The management plan calls for prescribed burning and offers advice on how cattle grazing can be continued here while protecting the integrity of the native prairie. Lentz is also offering to make the site an outdoor classroom for students.

The horses are being used on the more sensitive areas of the prairie. Much of the landscape is comprised of light soils, with hills and steep ravine slopes.

A neighbor with a tractor and hydraulic "claw" used for hauling round bales has helped move the cedars from those areas that can accommodate heavier machines.

Lentz pointed out that this site almost certainly held a special, spiritual importance to the Dakota. It offers a vantage point from which they could have looked out over the river valley and prairie landscape and watched over the wild game. Lentz said one elder with the Upper Sioux Community told him this would very likely have been a place used for vision quests as well.

As Arner and his team disappeared over a small hill with yet another load of cedar, Lentz said he was feeling good about the decision to call on their help. "It is respectful for this place," he said.

Tom Cherveny

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

(320) 214-4335