Just 6 miles southwest of Hutchinson at the intersection of two country roads, a 2,000-acre sanctuary has taken shape over the past 12 years.
“This is a great example of a lot of different partnerships,” said Scott Roemhildt, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources regional director for the southern region.
Just south of the intersection, a small trail leads out onto walk-in access hunting land in the Ras-Lynn Wildlife Management Area. It is flanked by acres of waterfowl production land managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more prairie habitat and acres of land enrolled in various state and federal programs administered by the DNR and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Local groups such as Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited assisted restoration work, along with engineering guidance via Board of Water and Soil Resources.
“We’ve mentioned six NGOs and agencies at the state and federal level just sitting at this road intersection,” said Greg Hoch, a DNR prairie habitat team supervisor.
Representatives from the DNR, Pheasants Forever and the Fish and Wildlife Service met for a roadside gathering at the intersection last week to chat with a representative from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office, Greg Swanholm, and give him a first-hand look at the outcomes achievable with help from programs such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program and the Conservation Reserve Program, which are funded in the Farm Bill.
The group later moved to walk-in access No. 322, a quarter mile south of U.S. Highway 12 on County Road 9 in Darwin Township, owned by Don Livingood.
“I still have the belief that in order to get people involved in the outdoors, you have to give them — not only an opportunity, because there’s lots of opportunities — but the public land isn’t where the people are,” Livingood said. “And if you’re a young guy or a young girl, you need something that’s local — that you can get to in a short period of time — you can go hunting and come back.”
Roemhildt, Hoch and Swanholm sat with Livingood to discuss first-hand how things are going with his land.
“As a way to avoid things becoming abstract,” Swanholm said. “So if we’re trying to think of legislative ways to look at things in our case, having allotted time to talk to the folks who’re directly most involved with things happening on their property, to just see what you’re talking about and how it works is very helpful for us.”
In the agricultural region of Minnesota such as Meeker and McLeod counties, less than 2 percent of the land is managed by DNR, which doesn’t leave a lot of land for people to hunt, Roemhildt said.
“We can’t forget these lands were purchased from private landowners originally,” said Scott Glup, a project leader for the Litchfield Wetlands Management District for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “A lot of them specifically want to sell to conservation organizations.”
In addition to the conservation value of the land, the walk-in section provides a natural environment for hunters. The grassland is also viable for grazing, as the plants evolved with bison herds.
“This is deep, fertile soil,” said Nathan Mullendore, a habitat program administrator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “You will be surprised by the growth you get back.”
In addition to the economic benefit of hunting tourism and hunting purchases in nearby communities, the land provides jobs. Caring for it means work for private contractors that may have only had seasonal work for landscaping and tree services.
“We’ve talked to small businesses who have completely changed their model,” Hoch said, noting businesses have added employees and started working year-round.
Over the past several years, the conservation area has grown piece by piece as landowners and local groups partner with various government programs. DNR staff mentioned the agency likes to grow existing habitat in comparison to adding more small, isolated plots. One Waterfowl Production Area was purchased by Pheasants Forever for the Department of Natural Resources, and the Fish and Wildlife Service helped restore it through a partnership.
On one 60-acre tract of land west of the intersection, the Fish and Wildlife Service found it had 9.22 miles of drainage tile to deal with during restoration to a natural habitat.
“It was really a complicated one,” Glup said. “You can’t just go in and remove 9.22 miles of tile. You can’t just go to the low end and break the tile; The head pressure will blow it out.”
The service teamed up with BWSR, which helped design a plan to strategically break the tile in 13 places.
“It’s worked very well,” Glup said.
Hoch said Minnesota’s agencies and nonprofit groups work exceedingly well together in a partnership that he’s learned isn’t always the case in other states.
“We talk to each other all the time,” he said. “I can’t put a number to it. I can’t put a dollar to how valuable it is.”
Ron Hansen, a landowner who enrolled 155 acres of land to the conservation area, said the walk-in hunting access helps cover the taxes on the land.
“We can hunt it same as always,” he said. “Just others can, too.”
When he first invested land into conservation, he said it doubled what he had paid for. And though he later realized he could have made even more by enrolling after land values went up, he was still glad to have come out ahead.
“I get a lot of comments from people who are happy something like this is around,” Hansen said. “With private property, it’s hard to find places where people will let you in.”
He noted that on a day with bad weather, there may be no one using the hunting land.
“There have never been crowds out here,” he said. “You’ll have two, three or four cars parked out here on a nice day. I probably don’t have any more hunters out here than I used to, only now they’re legal.”