Given the political, economic and lifestyle divisions that prevail in America, perhaps the “No hunting” posters that have popped up in western Minnesota this fall are simply signs of the times.
Or maybe they’re yet another indication that Minnesota is in fact a two-party state.
Not DFL and Republican. But urban and rural.
Regardless, the signs carry a straightforward message: Some farmers are still smarting over enactment in 2015 of Gov. Mark Dayton’s stream- and ditch-buffer initiative.
And they’re taking their gripes out on hunters, believing hunters’ interests in pheasant habitat, and not the public’s aspiration for cleaner lakes and rivers, are what’s behind the governor’s desire to improve state waters 25 percent by 2025.
Not all farmers are bothered by buffers.
According to the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), which is implementing the buffer law, along with local Soil and Water Conservation districts, about 95 percent of affected waters were protected by the required 50-foot vegetative buffers by the Nov. 1 compliance deadline.
The buffers are intended to reduce sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into state waters from adjacent agriculture lands.
Farmers who couldn’t meet the Nov. 1 cutoff date were required to request extensions. Options included filing “parcel specific compliance plans” or asking for technical or financial assistance.
Because some farmers complained that BWSR’s initial buffer guidelines were too regimented to apply to all Minnesota landscapes, the agency developed alternative practices that could achieve the same conservation goals. An online “decision support tool” was developed by the University of Minnesota and funded by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association to help farmers customize buffer or similar strategies. (See bwsr.state.mn.us/buffers.)
Since the buffer law’s 2015 passage, some lawmakers have tried to weaken or outright repeal the legislation. They’ve largely failed. Not because hunters opposed them, but because the majority of legislators, like the majority of Minnesotans, believe the buffer law is necessary and long overdue.
How overdue? Minnesota’s previous buffer law, applying to public ditches, was passed in 1977. But more than 30 years later, only 20 percent of affected ditches were protected.
Meanwhile, today, about 40 percent of state rivers and lakes are impaired, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, many of them unfit for swimming, fishing or drinking. Agriculture isn’t the only polluter. The metro is also a contributor, as are other cities and towns. But farming remains the primary culprit.
Pheasant hunters, meanwhile, got mixed up in the clean-water fight in 2014, when Dayton convened the state’s first-ever Pheasant Summit in Marshall. The gathering was held in response to declining ringneck numbers, due largely to previous tough winters and nesting seasons and the loss of hundreds of thousands of Conservation Reserve Program acres.
Summit attendees agreed that until existing state laws governing waterway buffers and roadside mowing are enforced — both actions would demonstrate the state was no longer simply paying lip service to farmland conservation — little else by way of law- or policymaking would matter.
After the summit, the DNR developed a pheasant action plan that included expanding public waterway buffers, an effort joined by other conservation, environment and wildlife groups, as well as a host of clean-water advocates.
Fast forward now to the Governor’s Pheasant Opener a few weeks ago in Marshall, in advance of which some area farmers refused to accommodate hunting land requests by local organizers.
Upset about the buffer law, the farmers didn’t want to participate in Dayton’s namesake event.
About the same time, signs reading, “No Hunting Due to New Buffer Law. Contact Your Governor With Questions” sprouted up at the end of some farmers’ driveways.
Scott Gillespie of Grace- ville posted his 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans with the signs, and also has aired buffer complaints on Facebook in a series of videos. Gillespie farms in Big Stone and Traverse counties. His brother, Curt, also farms in the area, as do his cousins, Kyle Gillespie and Terry Gillespie.
Scott Gillespie has a lot of problems with the buffer law, as does Kyle. Examples: The map defining “public waters” (and therefore requiring buffers) is incorrect, Scott says. The buffer law is more about increasing pheasants than cleaning up dirty water, Kyle says. And, according to Scott, the law “was forced through in backdoor meetings. And the law is being implemented poorly.”
But the Gillespies’ big complaint is this: They think the government is “taking” their land. “And I have a real problem with that,” Scott said. “This is private property.”
Asked why farmers should be allowed to expense their wastes and runoffs downstream, affecting other people, when other businesses and individuals can’t, Gillespie acknowledged “farmers need to continue to do a better job of doing better.”
“But I have a real problem with someone in Minneapolis or wherever saying we’re going to take your property,” he said. “I think it’s fundamentally wrong.”
In this country, opinions are everyone’s right.
But here’s a fact:
The buffer law is about water, not pheasants. If it were about pheasants, required buffers would be at least 150 feet wide, because that’s the width needed to provide birds with quality nesting and loafing cover — rather than serving, as many narrower buffers do, as predator killing grounds patrolled by coyotes, skunks and foxes.
And another fact: Attempts to gut the buffer law will continue in the next legislative session, and the next and the next. If successful, new signs will be needed.
“No hunting,” they will say. “Also no drinking, no swimming and no fishing. Welcome to Minnesota.”