by Kathleen Weflen
"We've lost so much," says Scott Seigfreid, referring to the native prairies that once blanketed much of his home territory in the Minnesota River valley. Fellow prairie enthusiast Henry Panowitsch agrees. In northern Minnesota, Melvin and Elaine Hooker might say we've lost pine forests. From her lakefront home near Brainerd, Deb Roberts could point to the loss of natural shoreline. And Roche Lally in east-central Minnesota laments the disappearance of brushlands.
These landowners know they cannot live without wild things. That's why they are investing time, money, and deeply held values in making a place for those things they hold dear.
As landowners, all hold the power to shape their piece of the landscape. Because more than 75 percent of Minnesota's land is privately owned, individual landowners play a critical role in conservation. The Department of Natural Resources has trained private lands specialists to assist landowners with managing their natural resources. These experts offer planning, technical, and financial guidance. They can provide advice on stewardship options that are compatible with the landscape and, therefore, most likely to succeed.
During this past year, I toured four places where landowners are working to improve the health of their land and waters. Their stories serve as examples for other landowners with conservation goals. Their stewardship benefits wildlife, plant communities, watersheds, and, ultimately, all Minnesotans.
In the Minnesota River valley, three friends are spreading the gospel of prairie—first by planting and tending their own land.
Scott Seigfreid, Randy Schindle, and Henry Panowitsch botanize while collecting buckets of native plant seeds. Founders of the Many Rivers chapter of Prairie Enthusiasts, they organize other volunteers to do the same.
Scott Seigfreid, Henry Panowitsch, and Randy Schindle often meet at a café in Good Thunder. Over coffee, they plot strategies for reviving prairie on private lands.
In 2004 Schindle, a DNR private land wildlife specialist, began advising Panowitsch on how to manage woodlands and reconstruct prairie on his 35 acres just north of town. Around the same time, Schindle was consulting with Seigfreid about planting prairie on his property south of Winnebago. Then he put Panowitsch in touch with Seigfreid for help spraying herbicide to control nonnative plants.
"After that, I just had to get out of their way," Schindle says in praise of the dynamic duo. Panowitsch, a retiree who moved to the area, and Seigfreid, a local who returned after college, cheerfully acknowledge that their politics differ. But mutual passion for restoring prairie has made them fast friends.
Panowitsch describes his place in the country as "rich in castoff materials" when he bought it in 1999. Over the next five years, he hauled out 8 tons of tires and nearly 100 gallon buckets of glass. "But I could see the potential," he says.
He tore down the old house and put a new roof on the barn. Now the tidy farmstead with 20 wooded acres and 12 of restored prairie serves as his retreat. Panowitsch comes here from his home in Mankato to tend the woods and prairie and to read and meditate in his "Zen chicken coop," remodeled into a living room with large windows and electric heat.
On a warm spring day, the four of us take a walking tour of his land, starting with a section seeded with prairie grasses, sedges, and forbs. Schindle gave Panowitsch a similar tour of his own planted prairie five years ago. Then he helped plant a test plot on Panowitsch's land and offered advice on purchasing native seeds.
The three prairie enthusiasts point out perennial bunchgrasses—dense mounds of little bluestem with bluish color at the stem base, wiry clumps of bluish green sideoats grama, and big clumps of bright green switchgrass. We find lots of forbs—compass plant, spiderwort, wild indigo, prairie smoke, rattlesnake master. Along the way, Panowitsch plucks and crushes leaves for me to smell the sweet aromas, such as the licorice scent of hyssop.
"Growing prairie is like a long jog," Panowitsch says. "It's not a sprint." And the landowner can't always let nature take its course, he explains; you need to use chemicals and gloves to control thistles, for example. You also need fire on the prairie, part of its natural history, to return nutrients to the soil and keep out trees.
Schindle advised the landowners on the benefits of doing prescribed burns to restore and maintain prairie. The three men held a brainstorming session on how to get landowners together in managing prairie lands. As a result, Seigfreid and Panowitsch founded the Many Rivers chapter of the nonprofit group Prairie Enthusiasts. As chapter president, Seigfreid calls members to do burns, cut trees, and collect seeds. "Scott's energy and dedication have made the Many Rivers chapter a standout of this multistate organization," says Schindle.
Showing me a cup plant, Seigfreid says he loves to watch a bobolink or a meadowlark drink rainwater caught in the broad-leafed cup that surrounds the stem. A monarch lands on butterfly milkweed. After cropland replaced native prairie, "a monarch had to pack a lunch when flying across this valley," says Panowitsch.
At the eastern edge of the prairie, we enter the woodland that first attracted Panowitsch to this place. Forests were his refuge as a child. At the end of World War II, his family fled from Poland to West Germany. "My father perished [during the war]," he says. "The man who became like a big brother to me was a forester." Panowitsch immigrated to the United States as a young adult and became a school psychologist and educator, still finding in the woods "a certain sanity."
Questions about managing the timber on his retirement property first led Panowitsch to Schindle, also a forester. Together they created a forest stewardship plan, which called for cutting to favor oaks and walnut, tree planting, and selling black walnut logs.
"You can see my mental evolution on the place," Panowitsch says. "At first I was very controlling, doing cleanup compulsively. Now I'm getting to the point of letting go. Tree stumps don't have to be removed. All kinds of little critters live there, incredible life forms. It's a garden of food for birds. Pretty is subjective. I've come to have a less conventional view."
A lakeside forest reflects this couple's commitment to trees.
Elaine and Melvin Hooker stand beneath a bur oak tree on Long Lake. The oak, beloved by their granddaughter, is part of the forest legacy the couple has been growing since they bought this former farmland in 1968. Working with DNR foresters, they have planted thousands of red pines, as well as white spruce and white pine. Harvested timber serves as their primary source of retirement income.
The longest stretch of undeveloped shoreline—2,800 feet—on Long Lake near Park Rapids belongs to Melvin and Elaine Hooker. Their 167-acre lakeside forest is one of four wooded parcels they own, all with DNR forest stewardship plans. The Hookers have long been committed to reforesting their land as a source of timber to generate income and to provide for future generations.
Brad Witkin, DNR private forest management specialist, created their current plan. But he shows me a hand-colored map from a plan that dates back to the stewardship program's inception in 1980. In fact, the couple has been working with DNR foresters since 1970.
Melvin Hooker's land ethic began taking shape back in 1944 when he cut and hauled cordwood with a team of horses. In the early 1960s, he worked for Hubbard County, overseeing the planting of 670,000 pine trees. Now in his 80s, the retired logger still plants trees by hand. "And he harvests timber when it's time," Witkin says.
The Hookers have planted tens of thousands of trees on this abandoned farm, which they bought in 1968. They planted 15,000 seedlings in 1971 to replace trees lost due to drought and disease. In 1980 they planted a 70-acre field with red (Norway) pines and bur oak, both species better suited to the sandy soil than farm crops were. Then in 2010, Witkin helped them sign up for a federal program to share the cost of tree planting, and they put in 12,000 red pines, white pines, and white spruce.
As the Hookers, Witkin, and I drive up the sandy two-track through the pines, Hooker comments on the growth of mature trees and seedlings.
"I used to love to cut the big Norways," Hooker says. "Now it's the other way: I like to leave them."
The forest mix includes jack pine and aspen. The young aspen are some of the most valuable trees for wildlife, Hooker says. Family and friends hunt deer here. Ruffed grouse and wild turkeys live in these woods. Over the years, the family has seen fox, skunk, marten, fisher, bobcat, bear, and wolves.
Hungry deer, of course, are the reason the pine seedlings wear bud caps. This year Hooker hired a crew of migrant workers to do the capping. They did 13 to 17 trees per minute, Hooker says as he shakes his head in amazement. Other maintenance work includes shearing, burning windrows of brush, and applying herbicides, as recommended by Witkin.
DNR foresters also help with timber sales, marking trees, bidding, and contracting with loggers. The Hookers have a sawmill at their home on the edge of town. With such a well-integrated operation, they hardly seem ready to retire. Yet, like so many of the individuals who own forest land, they wonder if their daughter and son will be able to keep the forests working.
Later Witkin reflects on the economics of land ownership. "Mel talked about the pressure he gets from developers. That's a prime piece of real estate that he's got there; that could be worth a whole lot more money to somebody for cabins than it ever could be for trees," Witkin says. "That's where these financial incentives programs help out too. As folks get hit harder and harder with property taxes, it helps them hold onto their land rather than [sell it to] be developed."
In the heart of lake country, these longtime residents see the value of restoring natural shores.
Rich and Deb Roberts consult with DNR shoreland habitat specialist Heather Baird on the care of native species they planted three years ago along 150 feet of lakeshore.
Not long after the ice goes out, Deb Roberts begins doing her daily swim across the north end of Nisswa Lake. She doesn't mind the bulrushes and lily pads along the shore near her home. She knows native plants indicate good water quality and fish habitat. Anglers know it too, and often fish near the Roberts' dock.
"I'm a lakes person," Roberts says, "and I will do whatever I can to try to keep our lakes clean."
Deb and Rich Roberts have lived on Nisswa Lake north of Brainerd for more than 30 years. In the past four years, Deb has cultivated a shoreline of native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees, with help from DNR shoreland habitat specialist Heather Baird.
Roberts' lakeside planting stretches about 150 feet along shore and 40 feet up a steep bank. When Baird and I visit the site on a warm October day, purple coneflowers and asters are still showing color and bees are buzzing. From May to October, some of the 30 species of native forbs and grasses are always in bloom. Roberts has placed ID tags by some plants for help when she gives a tour of this natural shoreline.
Compared with her traditional garden, this natural landscape "is hardly any work at all," Roberts says. She pulls thistles, leafy spurge, and other upstarts from seeds carried in by birds and wind. To simulate a prairie burn, she removes dead thatch with a hedge trimmer.
But getting the lake-scaping under way turned out to be a big project. After reading about lake-scaping and touring a shoreline restoration on another lake, she tried to do it herself. "About five years ago, I tried not mowing and scattered some native plant seeds," Roberts recalls. "I did not adequately get rid of grass. It didn't look real good. I realized I needed help."
Baird came out and looked at the site, but she did not rush the project because she always wants landowners to be certain they're ready to restore their shore to a natural state. "Deb and her husband had two years to talk about it and really be sure that's what they wanted to do," she says.
By May 2008, the couple had a landscape plan drawn up by Baird. They'd received a grant from the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources and invested $500 to buy native plant plugs and shrubs for their project. DNR nongame wildlife biologist Kevin Woizeschke and a crew of interns applied a chemical to kill sod at the planting site. Two weeks later, a truck delivered 2,000 seedlings, including aquatic plants and 10 varieties of native shrubs. The DNR crew returned, drilled holes for the plugs, and helped Roberts put them in the ground.
"We watered a lot the first year," Roberts says. By the end of summer 2009, the plants had shown "tremendous growth." Not only has the fishing improved, but also birds, butterflies, and dragonflies now abound. "Oh my gosh, we have got birds coming back," Roberts says.
Baird says studies done in Wisconsin have shown warblers, thrushes, scarlet tanagers, and other forest birds disappear when lakeshore yards are more urbanized. Restore the shore, she says, and they come back.
Most landowners cite erosion control as their motivation for restoring natural shoreline, says Baird. But they are often surprised to see the proliferation of wildlife. She recalls a restoration project on lakeshore that had been in one family for 100 years: "This spring they emailed me and said, 'We have frogs again!'"
Not everyone can see the beauty of this landscape, but one discerning viewer says sharp-tailed grouse showed him the way.
DNR wildlife technician Joe Worm, DNR private land wildlife habitat specialist Jodie Provost, and landowner Roche Lally share the planning, work, and pleasure of managing brushlands for sharptails.
"I've got a theory on what good sharptail habitat is," says Roche Lally, president of the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society. "They've got to be able to see their feet."
Seeing sharptail feet requires open ground—more specifically, brushland with widely scattered trees and shrubs such as aspen, birch, willow, and alder. Brushland is what Lally and DNR private land wildlife habitat specialist Jodie Provost are showing me on 80 acres in Carlton County in east-central Minnesota.
"This is the only land I've owned in my life," Lally says. When he and two deer-hunting buddies bought this place in 1989, they saw it as a business investment—land they could sell. "But we fell in love with it and went out of business," he says. Sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) were a large part of that change in plans.
"Over 250 other wildlife species use brushland besides sharptails," says Provost. "So we consider them a flagship species, because if they're doing well, chances are the habitat is healthy and the other species are doing well also."
Lally, an engineer in Duluth, travels here every other weekend. He's not promising we'll spot sharptails on this October afternoon, but he notes that he's been finding them roosting in a tree in the open. "You'll see them out there just about every morning, planning their breakfast," he says.
"There's one of them right now, Roche," says Provost. She points at a birch and we stop walking to look. With binoculars we see three. The speckled, chicken-size birds with pointed tails perch like ornaments on bare branches.
"Yeah," Lally says with a chuckle, "they're planning supper."
"They avoid large forest patches," Provost tells me, "but they like to sit in an aspen or birch tree and eat buds and catkins."
Lally and his son and buddies hunt deer here, but they leave sharpies alone. This habitat is part of a large complex of public and private lands with open areas called leks, where male sharptails dance in spring to attract mates. Maintaining dancing grounds and corridors of open space depends on longstanding private-public partnerships.
"A brushland project, whether it's on private or public land, is not just something you do and walk away from," says Provost. Without maintenance, the trees move in and swallow the brushland. Lally has been working on his land with DNR help for more than a decade, including the past six years with Provost and DNR wildlife technician Joe Worm. They help Lally find ways to gather equipment, workers, and funds to improve habitat.
Lally points to aspens and spruce on state forest land bordering his property.
"Most of mine is kind of open," he says. "Mine was just like that at one time. It took 10 years to get trees out of there—logged, sheared once or twice, then burned."
Provost also recommends mechanical mowing to cut down growing vegetation. "I actually like mowing in summer better than shearing in winter, if feasible," she says. "You're likely going to get a better bang for your buck, knocking woody vegetation back longer. That's what we're always trying to do is knock it back."
Fires once held back trees and brush. Settlers cleared woods for pasture, making room for grouse. "There's history to sharptails," Lally says. "Back in the old days, there were sharptails everywhere. There were a lot of small farms; it was more open."
Provost adds a wildlife biologist's perspective on the genetic health of sharptail populations in Wisconsin and east-central Minnesota: Preliminary data show diminished genetic diversity in disjunct, isolated populations of sharptails. By connecting brushland habitats, Minnesota's land managers—citizens and professionals—help ensure the long-term health of existing sharptail populations.
"It's better to do the preventive habitat thing," Provost says, "than to end up having to spend a lot of money moving birds around."