PAYNESVILLE, MINN. — Bill Keller bumped along in his pickup, cowboy hat on his head, pointing out the many evildoings of gophers -- mounds of dirt that can wreck expensive farm machinery.

"You've got to trap them to get rid of them, that's the only way," Keller said.

But this 309-acre parcel of Keller's cattle ranch won't see gopher traps any time soon. He has made a deal to sell the property to a consortium of conservation and wildlife groups led by the Nature Conservancy, with matching funds from the Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) program.

RIM is funded in part by sales of the state's critical habitat license plates.

"If I hadn't sold this land, I would have converted it from CRP [Conservation Reserve Program] acres to grasslands to graze my cattle," said Keller, who farms organically, and feeds out his beef that way, too.

The $800,000 purchase is scheduled to close Jan. 1. Eventually, the land will become a state wildlife management area, open to bird watching, hiking and hunting.

"It's an important acquisition because it's adjacent to our Regal Meadow Preserve and near the Stearns Prairie Heritage Wildlife Management Area," said John Maile, a project manager who works out of the Nature Conservancy's Paynesville office. "The project will help establish a key habitat block for pheasants, deer and a wide variety of nongame species."

Two Minnesota Deer Hunter Association chapters, six Pheasants Forever chapters and the Paynesville Sportsmen's Club contributed money to help the Nature Conservancy purchase the land.

But purchases such as these are relatively few, compared to the number of landowners willing to sell their property to be managed forever to benefit wildlife and other natural resources, such as wetlands and native grasses.

"We get a about call a week from landowners," said Eran Sandquist, regional wildlife biologist for Pheasants Forever who lives in South Haven, Minn. "Our chapters are very interested in helping to acquire these lands, as is our national office. But funds are limited, and the purchase process can be slow -- years -- to get done."

Hundreds of thousands of Minnesota acres enrolled in CRP the past 10 or 20 years likely will be converted to cropland in coming years because of high commodity prices.

A DNR study in recent years recommended as much as $20 million per biennium be allotted to purchase new wildlife management areas. Otherwise, some of these highly erodible or otherwise sensitive lands could be lost forever to development and agriculture.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature backed appropriations about half the size recommended -- leaving a significant shortfall to support wildlife and to provide the state's growing human population places for outdoor recreation.

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Maile, of the Nature Conservancy in Paynesville, grew up in nearby Cold Spring, Minn. His job is to oversee the conservancy's Ordway/Glacial Lakes conservation area. Five conservancy preserves totaling 3,079 acres lie within its 371,000 acres of rolling hills, dry and wet prairies, oak savanna, oak forest, maple-basswood forest, fens, marshes, lakes, rivers and streams.

Those preserves are Ordway Prairie, Moe Woods, Sheepberry Fen, Leif Mountains and Regal Meadow, which adjoins the Keller tract.

"Participation by local conservation and wildlife groups is key to acquiring lands for conservation," Maile said. "The Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment could help more groups participate if it passes Nov. 4."

Wildlife advocates fought hard in the last legislative session for a provision establishing a citizens- legislative council to oversee about $100 million in fish and wildlife habitat, should the amendment be approved by voters. The intent is to ensure the money is spent on these habitats only, and to ensure as well that the DNR gets none of the funds.

"What we did in establishing the council was direct that a significant portion of the fish and wildlife habitat money be available to sportsmen's clubs, Minnesota Waterfowl Association chapters, Pheasants Forever chapters, Ducks Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy and other groups on a matching basis," said Garry Leaf, executive director of "This will provide incentive to Minnesotans throughout the state to help identify areas that are important to set aside for wildlife and for outdoor recreation, and to provide incentive as well to raise local funds for this purpose. This way we can double and even triple money for habitat from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Act, or what is also called dedicated funding."

Tom Landwehr, associate state director of the Nature Conservancy, agrees.

"Catalyzing local involvement by rewarding local efforts is key to a successful implementation of dedicated funding," he said.

Meanwhile, Keller, the landowner and organic rancher, has set aside plans he had to till the 309 acres he sold to the wildlife groups. The land had been enrolled in CRP for 20 years.

"This was my mother and father's land before it was mine," he said. "It will be good to see it preserved."

Dennis Anderson •