IN WEST-CENTRAL Minnesota – On Tuesday, about 70 natural resources professionals boarded two school buses here for a tour of what is, and what might be. At issue were prairies and other grasslands, both of which have been, and continue to be, fast disappearing on the Minnesota landscape.
Whether these habitats can be returned to strategic corridors of the state, stretching from Manitoba in the north to Iowa in the south, wasn’t the primary question discussed at what was billed as the state’s first “prairie summit’’ — a gathering based, fittingly, at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center near Spicer, Minn.
Nor at issue was the method by which reclaiming some of these habitat types would be accomplished. In a fairly specific way, that’s already been detailed: Consortiums of wildlife, conservation and environment groups will join state and federal agencies, and other government units, such as soil and water conservation districts, to work with willing landowners in specific geographic areas.
Those areas then will be more-or-less joined, one to another, from north to south, in the western part of the state.
The goal is to protect and connect functioning prairie, grassland and wetland ecosystems, providing clean water and flood abatement, while also expanding wildlife habitat and plant diversity, among other benefits.
None of which will be easy.
One reason: While generally aware that flooding occurs regularly in the western part of the state, and that much of the region’s groundwater is contaminated, the general public, nevertheless, often fails to link the restoration of wetlands and grasslands to alleviating these problems.
Another challenge: All landscapes are fluid, meaning prairies and grasslands that are “set aside’’ must be burned or otherwise disturbed on a fairly regular schedule to maintain their vitality. Additionally, invasive plants and trees, such as western red cedar, must be removed to retain the integrity of these habitats.
Among those in attendance Tuesday, Scott Glup might know as well as any whether the state’s ambitious prairie plan can succeed.
Born in Nebraska, Glup, a wildlife biologist and manager, has worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in his home state, as well as in Kansas, North Dakota and South Dakota, before moving to Minnesota 10 years ago. Today he’s project leader — boss — of the FWS Litchfield office, whose 15-person staff oversees the service’s conservation programs in seven counties, including management of 50,000 acres of waterfowl production areas.
His office also buys an array of habitat easements from willing landowners, and enforces conditions of those easements.
“We fly over the easements at least once a year and take photographs to make sure the easement contract is being followed,’’ Glup said. “If we see something that’s been changed, a wetland drained, for example, we follow up, and make sure the habitat is restored.’’
Similar enforcement efforts will be needed in the state’s prairie plan, Glup said. “Right now out here, we’re definitely losing ground,’’ he said. “Commodity prices are high, farmers are looking for land to plant, and some wetlands are being drained, including some protected by easement.’’
So do high corn and soybean prices mean the state’s prairie plan can’t succeed?
“I think it’s going to work,” Gulp said, “particularly because the Legacy Act has the potential to provide the type of funds over the long term that we haven’t had before.’’
Critical, Glup said, is that the program has to make economic sense to farmers and other landowners.
“I think the conservation community is finally understanding that if doesn’t make economic sense to have grass on the land, it’s not going to be there,’’ Glup said. So easement or acquisition rates have to be competitive with the money a producer can make putting his property to different uses, such as planting crops.
Additionally, land easements will have to be the primary tool to access private land, not land purchases, Glup said. “Land prices are too high,’’ he said. “You can’t buy enough land to make a difference.’’