LSOHC members take walk on the wild side

By Javier Serna
Assistant Editor

Rushford, Minn. — Members of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council hit the road June 22, touring a number of project sites in southeastern Minnesota.

It was the first time the council, which recommends to the Legislature how to spend the Outdoor Heritage Fund dollars, was able to take a tour since 2019, due to social-distancing measures taken during the pandemic.

“It was so nice to get out with everybody, just to be out with everyone,” said David Hartwell, co-chair of the council. “Nice to see the projects and the cumulative impact of a little bit this year, a little bit next year, both on acquisition and the restoration side. It makes a difference over time.”

Mark Johnson, executive director of the council, called the tour “a very nice, welcome change back to normalcy.”

The council, after all, has been meeting mostly via Zoom meetings since the pandemic changed the way people congregated the past few years.

“I got to see the council members getting to know each other, other than at Zoom meetings,” Johnson said of the occasion. 

Also in attendance were various project partners, from DNR staff to representatives of project groups such as Trout Unlimited, the Trust for Public Land, and The Nature Conservancy, Johnson noted.

The weather was cooperative that day, with blue skies and a high in the low 80s. Tour members had an itinerary of stops along the route – projects from the tops of Bluff Country down to trout streams in the bottoms.

“We wanted diversity,” Johnson said. “We wanted to look at as much diversity as possible. This gave the council a chance to look at, how does it all work together? We had trout stream restorations as well as upland forests, prairies on the bluffs, restoration of native prairies. That gave members a chance to see how interconnected the top and bottom are, from water run-off, erosion, and how plant types change and how each of those plant types have different requirements and different ways they support the whole ecosystem. It all works together.”

Council member Mark Holsten said he had two major takeaway thoughts from the day.

“The connectivity that, after 10 years, they were able to put on a map a variety of projects,” Holsten said. “You start to see how they interconnect with one another. You see the coordination between the partners and the DNR. It was good to see how coordinated they are working collaboratively together.”

Holsten pointed out the time it takes to develop the OHF projects – not just on a project basis, but as part of a larger picture.

“When you do a planting, you are subject to Mother Nature’s whims, and it takes time,” he said. “This isn’t a one-year deal. It takes time to develop the habitat and it takes monitoring. It takes multiple years, from acquisition to betterment. It felt good to see what is actually emerging from the efforts of the (Outdoor) Heritage Fund.”

That led to the second takeaway for Holsten.

“You start to think about it in terms of programs,” he said. “We looked at projects, but what is behind them is larger programs. … For example, you had the DNR and Trout Unlimited. They are constantly looking out for willing landowners who will sell trout stream access easements, which gives people the ability to access trout streams. The DNR has the ability to go in and do trout stream reconstruction. … It is organized, concentrated deliverables for conservation.”

Hartwell pointed out the last stop, at the Schueler State Wildlife Management Area, where members could see for miles atop a bluff, including several projects, and down on the town of Rushford, which experienced a major flooding event in 2007.

“We sat on a bluff at the last stop, looking over a couple of protected properties,” Hartwell said. “It was just stunning.”

That history and view helped Johnson put what was seen into perspective.

“When we looked at streams and places where we hadn’t done habitat work yet, the stream was 10 or 15 feet below the level of the floodplain. There’s 12 to 15 feet of sediment that had filled in that floodplain over the last 90 years,” he said. “If you’re going to restore that, you have to peel back that soil that has washed down there. If you do that, and create better habitat, you also knock down a lot of the energy of flooding.”

Hartwell said that OHF-funded work, despite being plan-driven, doesn’t necessarily follow a point A to point B schedule.

“The opportunity to work with private landowners doesn’t follow an order you can predict,” he said. “You’re working on a complex, and as you can, (you work with) the owners that you have for easements or acquisition. It’s important to have a master plan and that you execute it. … It is very impressive over time what happens when you have a team that is committed to a project and how the groups are working together. There was no shortage of our partners telling us how important the Legacy (Amendment) funding was to their work, and that this would not happen without it.”

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