No doubt, we’ll remember 2020 for the hard blows the COVID-19 pandemic dealt to those who appreciate the outdoors. Here are a few examples of what we lost in west central Minnesota.

The 38th annual Prairie Potholes Days did not happen, a bitter loss for sure. Local volunteers had scrambled to organize the Prairie Pothole Conservation Association to replace the Prairie Potholes chapter after its parent organization, the Minnesota Waterfowl Association dissolved.

Rick Norsten, of Rick's Cycle and Sports in Willmar, is shown at his shop in downtown Willmar. Norsten has never seen as much demand for bicycles and service as this year. "We can't keep up with it," he said. 
Tom Cherveny/West Central Tribune
Rick Norsten, of Rick's Cycle and Sports in Willmar, is shown at his shop in downtown Willmar. Norsten has never seen as much demand for bicycles and service as this year. "We can't keep up with it," he said. Tom Cherveny/West Central Tribune

Let’s Go Fishing could not launch its 2020 season. Hundreds of senior citizens, students, military veterans and others did not enjoy fishing and boating excursions on local waters because of it.

A grandfather and his grandson head out on the quiet waters of Green Lake in August. Outdoor activities of all types saw big increases in the past year. 
Tom Cherveny/West Central Tribune
A grandfather and his grandson head out on the quiet waters of Green Lake in August. Outdoor activities of all types saw big increases in the past year. Tom Cherveny/West Central Tribune

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Organized activities at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center could not be held. The PWELC has shown its resiliency in the face of the hardship this has created. It continues to keep its grounds and trails open for public use despite the challenges. Executive Director Dave Pederson retired at year’s end.

Many outdoor organizations also faced the challenge of not being able to hold banquets and fund-raising events that help make possible the work they do. From local Pheasants Forever chapters to Let’s Go Fishing, all were forced to cancel events.

Aquatic Invasive Species inspectors Jabran Mustafa (left) and Beverly Jones Wood (right) check over Don Frost's personal watercraft at the Saulsbury Park access on Green Lake. Efforts to slow the spread of invasive species continued despite the pandemic. Meeker County's Minnie-Belle Lake was among those added to the list of waters infested by zebra mussels in 2020. 
Tom Cherveny/West Central Tribune
Aquatic Invasive Species inspectors Jabran Mustafa (left) and Beverly Jones Wood (right) check over Don Frost's personal watercraft at the Saulsbury Park access on Green Lake. Efforts to slow the spread of invasive species continued despite the pandemic. Meeker County's Minnie-Belle Lake was among those added to the list of waters infested by zebra mussels in 2020. Tom Cherveny/West Central Tribune

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources was not able to conduct its spring walleye egg take to produce fry at the New London Hatchery for stocking in local waters. Prescribed burning did not take place on area prairies in the spring.

Despite it all, 2020 a year to remember

In good part because of the pandemic, people embraced the outdoors like never before. Sibley State Park and neighboring state parks, county and municipal parks and area trails all saw big increases in usage. The DNR reported that as of November, state park usage statewide was up from the year before by 23 percent, and that’s despite a late start to the camping season.

Campground hosts Jeff and Anne Heerdt enjoy a quiet summer day at Kandiyohi County's popular park on the north shore of Green Lake. Despite a late start caused by COVID-19 restrictions, state, county and municipal parks saw big increases in usage during the past year. 
Tom Cherveny/West Central Tribune
Campground hosts Jeff and Anne Heerdt enjoy a quiet summer day at Kandiyohi County's popular park on the north shore of Green Lake. Despite a late start caused by COVID-19 restrictions, state, county and municipal parks saw big increases in usage during the past year. Tom Cherveny/West Central Tribune

Fishing license sales were up, and more people participated in turkey and other hunting seasons. Locally, the 2020 deer firearm season got off to a slower start than anticipated, and yet turned out to be a big one. Permit Area 277 in northern Kandiyohi County saw a 39 percent increase in deer harvested during the firearm season.

We also have to look back at 2020 for the accomplishments and challenges that helped mark it.

Ann Latham of the Green Lake Property Owners Association holds one of the walleye to be stocked in Green Lake. Latham has spearhead the project to stock the lake with pond reared walleye. 
Submitted
Ann Latham of the Green Lake Property Owners Association holds one of the walleye to be stocked in Green Lake. Latham has spearhead the project to stock the lake with pond reared walleye. Submitted

A partnership between the Green Lake Property Owners Association, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries office in Spicer, and a private landowner is helping maintain the walleye fishing in Green Lake. More than 7,500 walleye raised in three ponds, including Down’s Pond on property owned by Phil Jaeger, were stocked in Green Lake during the past year. The walleye were in the 12- to 13-inch size range, which helps assure their success.

Marbled godwits take flight along the shoreline of Marsh Lake. The shorebirds are among the wildlife benefitted by the restoration project.
Tom Cherveny/West Central Tribune
Marbled godwits take flight along the shoreline of Marsh Lake. The shorebirds are among the wildlife benefitted by the restoration project. Tom Cherveny/West Central Tribune

The completion of the $13 million Marsh Lake restoration project meant that steps to restore habitat and improve water quality could get underway. The DNR and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a drawdown of the lake. By early summer, some 1,500 acres of sandbars and shallow bays were exposed in the 5,100 acre lake. The drawdown has caused consternation by some lake users, but partners in the restoration project are confident that it will ultimately lead to improved opportunities for hunting, fishing and viewing wildlife. Walt Gessler, Lac qui Parle wildlife manager with the DNR, led a tour earlier this year to highlight the habitat improvements already evident.

Also on our pages this past year, the Minnesota DNR took input from anglers on its Quality Bluegill Initiative aimed at reversing the decades long decline in the size of bluegill in many waters. Special regulations are being considered on up to 123 lakes. There are six lakes proposed for special regulations in Kandiyohi County. Big Kandiyohi, Diamond, Florida and George lakes are being considered for five-fish bag limits. Long Lake by Hawick and Nest Lake are being considered for 10-fish limits.

Walt Gessler, wildlife manager of the Lac qui Parle refuge for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the draw down of Marsh Lake is achieving its intended effect of stimulating the generation of emergent vegetation on the newly exposed sandbars and mud flats.  The vegetation is the foundation for the food chain, and will host a wide diversity of invertebrates that will serve as good sources for fish and animals.  
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune
Walt Gessler, wildlife manager of the Lac qui Parle refuge for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the draw down of Marsh Lake is achieving its intended effect of stimulating the generation of emergent vegetation on the newly exposed sandbars and mud flats. The vegetation is the foundation for the food chain, and will host a wide diversity of invertebrates that will serve as good sources for fish and animals. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

The outdoor community is also awaiting a district court decision in the debate over public lands. Landowner Phillip Sonstegard filed a lawsuit challenging the decision by the Lac qui Parle county board to deny the sale of 80 acres of property in Baxter Township to the DNR. The land adjoins a wildlife management area. Sonstegard said the land cannot be farmed profitably. The DNR joins the landowner in maintaining that the land’s best use is for conservation and recreation.

The county board argues that Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment funds for land acquisition threaten to tip the balance between conservation and private land ownership in the county. Currently, two percent of the county’s land base is owned by the state for conservation. Land acquisitions have occurred only at an average rate of 129 acres per year since the Legacy Amendment was enacted in 2000.