Today's landscape means benefits of public lands extend beyond recreation to biodiversity and water quality
Public lands are not just for recreation. They serve an increasingly important role in providing biodiversity in our landscape, and our management of these special places reflects it.
WILLMAR — Earlier in his career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Scott Glup addressed the Board of Commissioners for Cavalier County, North Dakota, full of enthusiasm to sell them on the idea of a land purchase for a waterfowl production area.
His selling point: The land to be acquired would be a real duck factory, turning out the ducks hunters seek.
His sales pitch fell flat. “They didn’t care,” said Glup.
Today, he is the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Management District in Litchfield. It includes 156 separate waterfowl production areas of various sizes in the counties of Kandiyohi, McLeod, Meeker, Renville, Stearns, Todd and Wright. The district manages about 38,000 acres of land dedicated to wildlife and wildlife-dependent recreation.
His enthusiasm for these lands is no less today than it was when he made his pitch in North Dakota. He still appears before county boards of commissioners to sell them on the importance of these public lands.
But he has updated his sales pitch.
“Now when I meet with county commissioners I rarely mention ducks,” said Glup. “I talk about all of these other benefits.”
Biodiversity. Water quality. Groundwater recharge. Flood mitigation. Carbon sequestration. Quality of life. Economic diversity. Lands open to all.
These are the benefits that he emphasizes. “You can’t argue any of that stuff,” he said.
One of his favorite “showrooms” for making the pitch can be found north of Willmar.
The Weber Waterfowl Production Area is one of the first U.S. Fish and Wildlife acquisitions in Kandiyohi County. Its 421 acres includes wetlands, prairie and small oak woodland, offering opportunities to hunt waterfowl, pheasants, turkey and deer.
A mallard hen flew from her nest of eggs on this site while Glup spoke about the importance of public lands for conservation.
The importance of protecting lands like these has only grown. We’ve lost 99 percent of our native prairie in the state and drained away 90 to 95 percent of our prairie pothole wetlands, he pointed out.
We’ve also come a long way in our management of these lands since Glup began his career.
The Weber WPA was acquired sometime in the late 1950s, and waterfowl production was goal number one. Much of the formerly tilled acres has been planted to a mix of brome, alfalfa and intermediate wheatgrass. It was known as "dense nesting cover "because waterfowl liked to nest in it.
“We’ve learned a lot,” said Glup.
While it made good nesting cover, the mix provided limited benefits to other wildlife species. Now, this and other WPAs have been reseeded with a mix of prairie grasses and flowers to benefit a diversity of wildlife and insects, pollinators in particular.
“The more diverse, the better,” said Glup.
Native plantings also provide far more benefits in terms of water quality and soil health, he said.
They require management. Prescribed burns are conducted as needed to maintain the prairie plants and knock down invasives.
The other lesson learned over the years has been the negative aspects of allowing invasive, woody vegetation to take hold on these lands.
One of the first efforts to upgrade the Weber WPA to modern conservation purposes was to hire a contractor to remove the cottonwoods, green ash and box elders that had covered much of this land.
Glup, a Boy Scout leader, also recruited Scouts through the years to help remove invasive cedar and buckthorn.
Now, he can point to the many people who come to hunt, bird watch and recreate on this land as evidence of the benefits of a restored landscape.
But there’s more to do. One of the most important lessons that conservation professionals have learned in recent years is that it is not enough to restore wetlands and call it good.
The proliferation of artificial drainage, a trend toward more and larger rain events, and the loss of so many wetlands has altered what was once a natural cycle for the remaining wetlands.
Water levels in the remaining wetlands stay too high. Carp and flathead minnows persist in them, to the detriment of the aquatic vegetation that is so important to water quality and wildlife.
Ducks Unlimited is in the process of designing a control structure for the Weber WPA wetland. It will allow the US Fish and Wildlife Service to periodically draw it down, mimicking the beneficial effects of a natural cycle.
Drawing down the water will allow vegetation to re-establish itself and, during the winter, a freeze-up can kill the invasive carp population.
Glup said an upstream landowner is on board with the idea of installing a control structure. An avid waterfowl hunter, Glup said the landowner has noticed a reduction in waterfowl numbers that has occurred in the larger wetland on his property.
The hunter learned the cause of the problem after tossing his decoys into the wetland on a windless day. He watched them move about. Carp in the murky waters were bumping up against the decoys and their stringed anchors.
Carp uproot and destroy the vegetation that attracts waterfowl to wetlands during their migration.
Plans for the Weber WPA control structure include a velocity tube that should make it virtually impossible for carp to swim back up into the wetlands, Glup said.
In his work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Glup is often able to see just how popular WPA’s like this one are with people who enjoy the outdoors.
Increasingly, he’s also hearing support for these lands from people who may never visit them. The members of lakes associations in this and neighboring counties are well aware of the importance of conservation on upland areas to water quality in their favorite lakes.
Oftentimes today, when he speaks to county boards of commissioners, he arrives with letters of support from lakes associations tucked in his pocket. His sales pitch for conservation has come a long way from when ducks were all that mattered.