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Conservation is an everyday effort, speaker says

Paul Johnson, former USDA NRCS chief, now of Decorah, Iowa, at Cascade Environmental Learning Center in Rochester for Earth Day event.

Jeff Hastings remembers his first Earth Day. He and his friends woke an hour early to walk the nine miles to school.

Forty-one years later, he still remembers the look on the principal’s face when he and his friends arrived at school 2 1/2 hours late.

Hastings, a Trout Unlimited project manager, was one of 16 people who spoke during an Earth Day Celebration on Thursday at Cascade Meadows Wetlands and Environmental Science Center in Rochester. More than 50 people with an interest in conservation filled a meeting room with a view of the wetlands under construction outside.

Earth Day happens once a year, but conservation is an everyday effort, Hastings said.

It’s the little things that help, like foregoing a plastic bag at the store and turning out the lights when you leave a room, that add up to big things, said Kathryn Kelly, president of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Conservation districts work with landowners on conservation practices.


Kelly said conservationists need to have the same excitement that former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin did when he started Earth Day 41 years ago. That first Earth Day was the first time she realized that grass roots involvement can lead to change, Kelly said.

It doesn't take a gigantic group of people to make a change, said Paul Johnson, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service from 1993 to 1997. Change can start with one person, he said.

"Everything we’ve done is (because of) a few people who got to it," said Johnson, who lives on a farm near Decorah, Iowa.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service is the federal agency that works with farmers on conservation. It partners with the conservation districts, which are funded primarily by the state and counties.

Johnson challenged farmers to do one additional conservation practice this year and asked urban residents to support farmers who are good stewards of the land. Say thank you once in awhile, he said. One day, Johnson said, he stopped at a farm he often drove past and thanked a woman tending a garden for the care she and her husband paid the land. She responded with tears in her eyes, he said.

Urban property owners can play a role, too. They can let their grass grow past half an inch, and they don't need to apply excessive amounts of fertilizer, Johnson said. Rain gardens and wildlife plantings might be options for people with larger lots.

"Remember, it’s the individual who changes things," Johnson said.

Earth Day should be like New Year’s Day with a conservation spin, Hastings said. Earth Day should be a day to reflect upon what you did to make a difference for the environment in the past year and set goals for what you’ll do to help the environment in the year ahead.

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