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SWCD utilizes available programs to meet military and watershed needs

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Minnesota’s Morrison Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is using federal and state programming and a partnership with the military to secure easements and establish and maintain buffers. The effort aims to protect and improve water quality and wildlife habitat around the National Guard’s Camp Ripley.

“We know if we can protect 75 percent of a watershed, our water quality is going to stay in good condition,” District Manager Shannon Wettstein said. “That’s a goal for the district, but for the military, the habitat fragmentation and wildlife entering the camp was the concern.”

Located near the Nokasippi Wildlife Management Area, Camp Ripley operates 24 hours a day, training about 30,000 military personnel and civilians each year, including firefighters, emergency responders, law enforcement officers and snowplow operators.

Development migrated toward the camp, affecting the National Guard’s ability to conduct its training. The state of Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources reworked the state’s Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) Reserve program, and the legislature modified it to work within the military’s Army Compatible Use Buffer (ACUB) program.

The ACUB program allows the purchasing of development rights through permanent conservation easements to minimize infringement within a three-mile radius of the camp. Landowners receive a per-acre sum and retain the right to continue current land use that often includes farming and hunting.

RIM functions in much the same way. It compensates landowners for voluntarily retiring marginal cropland to benefit wildlife habitat and protect soil and water resources.

“Modifying the framework of our existing RIM Reserve easement program was a ‘win-win’ opportunity to retain an existing landscape of forest, prairie and agriculture,” Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts Executive Director LeAnn Buck said. “They didn’t want more development or housing to get in this area, so we are able to leverage resources to use easements to prevent the development.”

Since ACUB’s inception in 2006, about 650 landowners have shown interest and nearly 290 easements on more than 29,000 acres have been completed. Another 155 parcels across more than 13,600 acres are ready for action.

The buffers preserve wildlife habitat for species like wolves, red-shouldered hawks and the threatened northern long-eared bat. RIM Reserve has also assisted in protecting the state’s wild rice habitat and lands within the 400-mile long Mississippi River headwater region and its water quality along the way.

“When the ACUB program started, we were identified as the place for getting landowner contacts and walking them through the process,” said Wettstein. “But we really needed the easement, so the state made a cooperative agreement with the Department of Defense to say we will hold these easements in perpetuity, and the district will be the one providing the professional services.”

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration program to date has put about $34 million into ACUB at Camp Ripley.

Protecting the forest surrounding the National Guard’s Camp Ripley has brought $5.7 million in Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund investments since 2010 and includes riparian buffers on about 4,800 acres involving land surrounding the Little Nokasippi Wildlife Management Area and the confluence of the Little Nokasippi River.

Specific properties are identified as targets, Wettstein said, and the district works with landowners to implement the program.

“The state has recognized the need to do work before things get bad, and definitely the more pressure on those resources, the more money we’ll have to pump in to fix it to slow down some of the causes,” Wettstein said. “The water quality piece is still good, and we’re working on keeping it that way.”

The district maintains contact with the military to ensure it is meeting its goals to continue training efforts while keeping wildlife at bay.

“We’re really proud of the program,” Wettstein said. “We’re talking with the landowners, we know [Camp Ripley’s] goals and what needs to be reported back to get funding, so we’re really driving this program.”

“And it impacts our water quality as well,” she said. “It’s a great partnership.”

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