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Restored wetlands provide haven for waterfowl

By Janet Kubat Willette

Agri News staff writer

SUMMIT TOWNSHIP, Minn. — It’s a cold, windy day, with rain pelting the pickup. Yet the wetland is alive with sound.

Frogs and songbirds provide the chorus, with Canada geese adding their distinctive honk. Mallards rest in the grass poking from the water, spaced just so, giving the appearance of a duck motel through the lens of the binoculars.

Just three years ago this was a potato field, says Noel Frank, district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Steele County.

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The landowners decided to enroll the land in the federal Wetlands Reserve Program, a voluntary program that allows landowners to convert farmland into wetlands. Their land was given priority since it’s located in the Prairie Pothole Region and is a part of the Mississippi River flyway, where 40 percent of all North American migrating waterfowl and shorebirds pass in the spring and the fall.

Steele County has placed a priority on enrolling land into the Wetlands Reserve Program, which came into being in the 1996 farm bill. At first, the paperwork seemed burdensome, Frank said, but now it’s one of his favorite programs.

"It’s nice to know this is permanent," said Frank.

All the land enrolled in the WRP has a permanent easement. Landowners give up the right to build on or farm it, although they continue to own the land and pay property taxes on it. They also control access. The land enrolled is generally not highly productive.

The Straight River Marsh Project area, which stretches over nine miles in Summit and Blooming Prairie townships in southern Steele County, is one of three areas in Minnesota targeted for special attention and funding through the Wetlands Reserve Program. If a landowner will accept the terms, they are given automatic priority, Frank said. There are about 30 easements in the area, ranging in size from 33 acres to about 200 acres. Landowners located outside the targeted area are scored and compete for funding on a statewide basis.

"The program takes a long time, but it’s worth it," he said. "It seems like a lot of work, but permanent changes everything."

Once the easement is paid for and the paperwork signed, it usually takes one to two years to establish a wetland.

Any crop on the ground must be harvested, and a complete engineering plan is done to determine what’s feasible to restore. Everything is reviewed with landowners. Earthwork is completed, including upland planting of about 60 grass species.

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"This project is perfect for a county like this because it provides some balance," Frank said. Steele County is intensely farmed and home to about four lakes.

To maintain the restored wetlands, prescribed burns, mowing and dike repair are ongoing.

Birds not seen in the county for decades have returned. Some fly through on their way to other destinations, but others stop and nest. Sandhill cranes, which were once scarce, now nest in the county. He encourages landowners to post their converted wetlands for no hunting.

"I’ve been out here when the sky almost turns dark" from the number of birds, Frank said.

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