Anderson: Three key meetings coming up to save region's prairies

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 31, 2013 - 12:37 AM

Conservationists and policymakers will meet several times in June on saving grasslands and wetlands in Minnesota and the Dakotas. They are quickly being lost.

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Josh Kavanagh, a Ducks Unlimited biologist, waits for legal shooting time at dawn in September 2012 while duck hunting on Smith Lake in Wright County.

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Almost faster than the losses can be documented, the nation’s most important grasslands are disappearing, a sad fact that will bring scores of conservationists and important national policymakers to Bismarck, N.D., next week for a prairie “summit” and a hunting heritage meeting.

Separately, near Spicer, Minn., a similar confab will be held in a few weeks to further implement the planned multibillion dollar, 25-year effort to save Minnesota’s remaining native prairies and restore some of its lost grasslands and wetlands.

Gatherings of this type aren’t front-page news. But each represents the complex and important machinery of modern-day conservation, in which government agencies join with various wildlife and environment groups to determine how to retain critical components of the nation’s landscape, and with them remnant portions of our natural heritage and outdoor traditions.

If you’re a hunter or bird watcher, these meetings are important for obvious reasons. But even those who are otherwise uninterested in the outdoors should pay attention, because how our lands are managed ultimately is reflected in the cleanliness of our lakes and rivers, and the health and abundance of our aquifers.

And if you’re a taxpayer in some form or fashion, you’re helping to fund these meetings. So understanding their intent while attempting to gauge their effectiveness is warranted.

Here’s a breakdown of the three gatherings:

• Prairie Summit, Bismarck, Monday-Tuesday: Organized by Ducks Unlimited (DU), and co-sponsored by other wildlife groups, this gathering will be attended by about 80 conservationists, including high-level decisionmakers such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.

“We’ll focus primarily on North Dakota and South Dakota, where grassland losses are increasing while the ‘buying power’ we have to conserve these areas is decreasing due to high commodity prices,” said Jim Ringelman, director of conservation programs for DU’s Great Plains regional office in Bismarck.

A recent study showed why so many farmers are pulling land out of the Conservation Reserve Program and planting corn and soybeans, Ringelman said.

“The net profit for some farmers on an acre of land in CRP was put about $11, while the net profit of an acre planted in corn was about $450,” he said.

DU and others conserve these important landscapes by purchasing conservation easements on them. But rising land values means fewer acres are being set aside. “It scares me to see what’s happening,” Ringelman said.

Attendees on Tuesday will board chartered buses for a tour of a North Dakota farm, en route to the state’s oil patch to see challenges it poses to wildlife. A cookout and discussion of possible solutions will end the day at a national wildlife refuge.

• Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council meeting, Bismarck, Wednesday-Thursday. Made up of 18 members (primarily the nation’s conservation group leaders) appointed by the Interior and Agriculture secretaries, and seven nonvoting members representing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Farm Service Agency and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Among the council’s responsibilities are advising the Interior and Agriculture secretaries on important national wildlife, hunting and conservation issues, including, for example, the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, which could threaten wildlife and other resources.

Many council members will attend the Bismarck prairie summit before convening their meeting to learn firsthand the many conservation challenges unfolding in the Dakotas.

• Prairie Summit, Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, Spicer, Minn., June 25-26. About 65 resource professionals will attend, each charged in some way with implementing the state’s ambitious Prairie Conservation Plan agreed to a year ago by state and federal agencies and 10 leading conservation groups.

The Minnesota prairie plan hopes to acquire or protect more than 2.2 million acres in coming decades in a network of connected native and restored prairies, wetlands and grasslands along the state’s western edge.

Local resource teams charged with effecting the plan by meeting with farmers and other landowners will gather in Spicer to further synchronize their efforts, said Marybeth Block, Department of Natural Resources prairie coordinator.

“We have a lot of momentum,” Block said. “At the meetings, we want to get people on the front lines of prairie protection in Minnesota together to make sure our efforts are coordinated.”

Implementation of the state’s prairie plan is being paid for in large part by the Outdoor Heritage Fund, overseen by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, and created by the Legacy Act. The Nature Conservancy, among other groups, is a major player.

 

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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