– He’s older now — 87 — but still strides with an energetic gait, perhaps never more so than when tall grass stretches out before him, with a wetland to one side and a small woodlot to the other.

Such was the scene that unfolded Wednesday in rural Stearns County as Mel Roehrl checked out a new state wildlife management area that will be named in his honor Saturday.

It’s a rare feat, this, to have one’s name attached to anything, absent its appearance previously on an obituary page. But no one is more deserving of the honor than Mel, whose conservation ethic and work arguably have not been exceeded in Minnesota. And that covers some ground.

Born in 1926 in tiny Lake Henry, Minn., Mel moved with his family to the outskirts of Melrose, northwest of St. Cloud, as a toddler. He’s remained there his entire life.

Mel and I first met in 1983 when Jeff Finden and I drove to Albany, Minn., to gather with a small group of hunters to gauge their interest in forming a Pheasants Forever (PF) chapter in Stearns County. This was at the old Sands Motel, and Mel was joined by Pete Fischer, Roger Weller, Jim and Doug Mohs, Mike Hanan, Jake Whitten and Jim Schmiesing.

It speaks well of Minnesota that anyone would show up at a meeting to join a bird club that at the time had barely taken wing. PF’s first chapter fundraiser had been held only a year before in St. Paul, with fundraising banquets following in Kandiyohi and Stevens County. Now Finden and I were gauging interest among this Stearns County bunch in joining the fold, essentially to benefit themselves, because the PF model was and remains one in which most funds raised remain with chapters for local habitat work.

Fast forward to today, and the Stearns County PF Chapter can boast of a nearly endless list of accomplishments.

It’s one of only two PF chapters nationwide, for example, that has spent more than $4 million for local habitat work, land acquisition and related conservation efforts. Last year, Stearns County was named Minnesota’s PF Chapter of the Year, and this year it received the organization’s Excellence Award.

All of which reflects the dedication of scores of conservation volunteers in Stearns County, and on a broader scale argues well that all “environmentalism” is local, even though Congress and state legislatures have over the years passed such large public policy initiatives as the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, among others — each of which broadly protects, and improves, society.

Yet in the end, a nation, state or county whose citizens don’t “get it” about the importance of clean air, clean water, soil conservation and a balanced landscape that includes redoubts for wildlife won’t be saved by someone legislating from afar.

Put another way, if this planet has a future, it needs more people like Mel Roehrl.

• • •

“I’ve been hunting 70 years,” Mel said, as he, fellow Stearns County PF chapter officer Brad Cobb, DNR area wildlife manager Fred Bengtson and I tooled along a wet stretch of new gravel leading to the future Mel Roehrl State Wildlife Management Area.

This was late Wednesday morning, and rain slanted from a heavy gray sky that seemed to stretch to the next day and beyond.

Still, Mel smiled. And why not? Good cheer has served him well in his long life.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t have any dogs to hunt birds with, just ourselves,” Mel recalled. “This was in the late 1930s, and we’d go out after school. It was a bad day if we didn’t have four pheasants by the time we went home.”

As Mel spoke, Cobb and Bengtson listened intently, thankful not only for the contributions Mel has made to conservation for more than 30 years, but for his friendship.

“It was Mel who once loaned the chapter $1,500 to help buy a piece of property when the chapter didn’t have enough funds to do it,” Cobb said.

Bengtson began attending Stearns County PF meetings in 1986, and recalled that Mel was a steady hand when differing viewpoints clashed.

“He’d raise his arm and slowly stand up, looking around the room with a smile that would melt butter,” Bengtson said.

As it happened, serendipity guided Mel to the initial Stearns County PF meeting in 1983. He had retired from the fire department in 1977, and had promised his wife he would give her five years of his undivided attention in an effort to make up for the long hours he had devoted to work and, not incidentally, to the pursuit of ducks and pheasants.

“I had just finished those five years when the guys asked me if I wanted to go to that meeting in Albany to learn about Pheasants Forever,” Mel said.

Soon thereafter, Stearns County PF held its first banquet at the New Munich Ballroom. About 250 conservationists attended, each of whom, it seemed, arrived in their own pickup. Or so I recall thinking as I approached the building in my own truck.

In the years since, the chapter has acquired 34 new and/or additions to state wildlife management areas and federal waterfowl production areas, totaling more than 4,700 acres. The chapter also helps fund a PF farm bill biologist in Stearns County, sponsors numerous local conservation events including youth hunts, and publishes a quarterly newsletter. Additionally, it has a website and Facebook page to promote pheasant and other wildlife habitats throughout the region, and draws about 500 people to its annual fundraising banquets.

Now, with a bevy of partners (see sidebar), the chapter is adding another 303-acre WMA to its accomplishment list, this one in Mel’s name. The property is a mix of grasslands and wetlands, with some trees, and supports a host of game and nongame wildlife, including the rooster pheasant, a squadron of ducks and four deer we spotted Wednesday.

Central to the project’s establishment was its willing sale by the Buckentine and Thompson families, both of whom also donated land to the undertaking.

“Then we needed to figure out how to pay for it,” Bengtson said, noting its per-acre cost of about $3,000.

Thus was formed a coalition of nearly 20 conservation groups and other partners, an effort that will result Saturday in the 10 a.m. dedication of the Mel Roehrl Wildlife Management Area.

All are welcome.

Mel will be there, smiling.

 

Editor’s note: Here are directions to the dedication. From Sauk Centre, follow Hwy. 71 south for seven miles. Turn right (west) on County 22 for five miles. Then turn left, or south, on County 18 for 2.5 miles, and left, or south, on 470th Ave. for ¾ mile.

 

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com