Grasslands the focus of Prairie Summit

Spicer, Minn. — The goal is noble, if not huge: enhance, restore, and protect millions of acres of prairie and grassland in  Minnesota over the next quarter-century.

These landscape types have been under heavy pressure for years, and Minnesota today has just a tiny fraction of the prairie it once had. The interconnectedness of such habitat has been lost, too, and there’s no apparent end on the horizon to the assault under which prairies have been.

But that doesn’t mean efforts aren’t under way to change what’s occurred on the state’s prairie landscape; there are. Case in point: a Prairie Summit held last week in Spicer, at which more than 70 people from a broad array of agencies, groups and organizations gathered as they continue their collective fight for prairie conservation.

“We’re living in a state that has converted almost all of its grasslands,” said Matt Holland, director of grant development for Pheasants Forever. “There’s a lot of folks working to protect what little remnant prairie habitats we have out there.”

Said Mike Tenney, prairie habitat team leader for the DNR: “Everybody understands the heavy pressure that’s on grasslands these days, especially out (in western Minnesota).”

For those concerned with prairie conservation in the state, the Minnesota Prairie Plan is the guiding document, which sets aggressive habitat goals and explains how a $3.6 billion investment over the next 25 years or so could change the trajectory of the Minnesota prairie.

The goals, according to the plan:

• “Permanent protection through the acquisition from willing sellers of fee title or easement of native prairies, wetlands, and other habitats (including land to be restored): about 221,000 acres in core areas, 82,000 acres in corridors, and 547,300 acres elsewhere.”
• “Restoration activities on grasslands, wetlands, and other habitats: 180,900 acres in core areas, 84,100 acres in corridors, and 251,000 acres elsewhere.”
• Enhancement of prairies and grasslands via prescribed fire, conservation grazing, haying, and invasive species control: 100,560 acres annually in core areas, 42,050 acres annually in corridors, and 334,397 acres elsewhere. Enhancement of 335,047 acres of existing wetlands and shallow lakes through control of invasive species and intensive water level management is also included.”

Across the state, core focus areas have been identified, and local teams have been, or will be, created to work in those areas. Five teams already have had initial meetings, and some have had multiple meetings.

“Hopefully, folks feel like they’re part of the plan – part of something bigger,” Holland said. “If we want to see grasslands out there in a functional way on the landscape, it’s really that collaboration that’s going to help landowners accomplish it.”

Landowners, of course, have strong economic incentives to remove grass from the land. If they’re to put their land in conservation, it has to make economic sense.

“Despite agricultural land values and commodity prices being what they are, there’s still interest in some of our conservation programs, like CRP and RIM,” Holland said.

Funding

According to the plan, the cost to achieve its goals is about $3.6 billion. About $2.5 billion will come from “traditional” sources of funding. Plan authors envision the remainder – $1.1 billion – coming from the Outdoor Heritage Fund.

Of the nearly $270 million in project proposals for fiscal year 2015 from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, about $87.5 million – or 32 percent – is for work on the prairies. The largest request is from the DNR, which seeks $40 million to protect grass and prairie habitats via easements.

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