Scott Rall was in his element: A vast sea of chest-high prairie grass glowing warmly in the late-day sun.
Just to the west, a dozen ducks circled a slough as if waiting permission to land.
“Isn’t this just beautiful?” he said, shotgun in hand, his two black Labs rustling through the dry grass in search of pheasants.
A rooster eventually rose, glimmering, and Rall, 53, of Worthington, dropped it with a shot from his 12 gauge. His black Lab, Axel, brought the bird to hand.
Rall’s passion for hunting dogs and pheasants runs deep — but his passion for restoring prairies and wetlands that pheasants, ducks and other critters need might run deeper.
As president of the Nobles County Pheasants Forever chapter for the past eight years, he has helped the group to acquire 18 parcels that have since been turned into state wildlife management areas — grasslands and wetlands open to public hunting. In the 20 years prior, the chapter acquired 14 parcels.
“We’ve doubled the pace,” said Rall proudly.
His chapter now has helped acquire 2,300 acres of marginal farmland that has been converted to wildlife habitat, making the chapter one of the most accomplished in the nation. Rall and his group have acquired much of that land, and later transferred it to the Department of Natural Resources, through a unique partnership with Worthington Public Utilities, the local watershed district, the DNR and the E.O. Olson Trust to help protect aquifers — the sole water supply for the city.
More than 500 acres, or about 95 percent of the most vulnerable soils in a water-well protection area, have been purchased and converted to grasslands, which reduces erosion and runoff, and helps conserve water while providing habitat for ringnecks and other wildlife. Another 900 acres of moderately vulnerable soils also have been protected.
The latest acquisition — a 147-acre parcel — was purchased recently for $843,000, planted to prairie grasses and dedicated Saturday as the Worthington Wells Wildlife Management Area. The chapter couldn’t afford a project that size by itself, but with help from the other partners, the land was bought.
“Whether your goal is creating wildlife habitat, providing recreational opportunities or protecting water, the solution was the same,” said Scott Hain, general manager of Worthington Public Utilities. “It’s been a great deal for us.”
And Rall has been the driving force.
“Scott has been very aggressive,” Hain said. “He obviously has a passion for it.”
As part of the Governor’s Pheasant Opener event last weekend, Rall led visitors on a tour of the lands.
“A hunter can now walk 12 continuous miles before leaving public land,” Rall said. “I don’t know how many times I could tell this story and not get excited.”
Joe Duggan, a PF vice president, said Rall’s leadership has been exceptional. And his efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Rall was a finalist this year for Field & Stream magazine’s “Heroes of Conservation” award. He also has, for the past six years, served as a member of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, helping to recommend the spending of about $100 million yearly in Legacy Amendment funds to protect, enhance and restore wildlife habitat.
The Nobles County PF chapter and its partners accomplished the land purchases without applying for Legacy Amendment dollars, because Rall’s position as PF chapter president presents a conflict of interest with his membership on the Lessard-Sams council.
“We have been successful in habitat acquisition and restoration at a rate unparalleled anywhere,” Rall said. “We have created an energy and a momentum that exceeds my wildest expectations. And we are absolutely not done.”
High land and crop prices, which have helped convert grasslands to croplands throughout the Midwest, haven’t deterred Rall and his group.
“Many conservationists have thrown up their hands in despair,” he said. “It motivates me even more. We doubled down and forged on.”
Rall touts the benefits of grasslands anywhere he can, from garden and civic groups to other wildlife organizations.
“If I can teach 100 people to love prairies as much as I do, we can accomplish much more than I can myself,” he said. “I’m trying to spread the word to create an army of conservationists.”
His involvement with PF began early, and for a simple reason.
“There was no place to take my son hunting; there was virtually no public lands in Nobles County to do that,” he said, adding that the local Pheasant Forever chapter was the first in the nation to acquire land that would become public. Today, about 4,500 acres of public wildlife areas sprawl across Nobles County.
Rall recalled encountering a youngster who shot his first rooster on public grounds.
“The smile on that kid’s face was everything to me as far as motivation goes,” he said.
Meanwhile, Rall’s position on the Heritage Council expires in January. He’s hoping to be reappointed, so he can continue to fight on for conservation.
“I’ll continue to spend my time and energy on wildlife and habitat resources,” he said. “I want to continue the work we’re doing, to educate people about the challenges and to put as many smiles on 10-year-old kids as I can.”