Watershed program allows Minnesota district to address woodland objectives

The Root River Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) in Minnesota is using Watershed Conservation Planning Initiative (WCPI) funds to expand landowner projects, including into wooded areas.

WCPI aims to increase Minnesota Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)’s and SWCDs’ ability to work with landowners on conservation planning. The initiative is funded through a three-year, $3 million agreement from the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) and NRCS through December 2021. Historically, grants have focused on cropland issues related to watersheds, but Root River SWCD is using its grant to assist landowners in a comprehensive manner.

“Whole-farm conservation planning leads to new and different projects compared to what we usually do, like ponds and grassed waterways,” Root River SWCD Water Planner/Technician Dan Wermager said. “If there is a small patch of woods on a farm that is mostly open cropland, with a whole-farm plan, we would look at this forestland, too, and not just the gully in the cropland that the farmer points out to us.”

“We’re reaching a new demographic of landowners – people who have never even heard of us – and getting new people involved in conservation, not just the usual farmers,” he said.

Through the grant, Wermager has done a lot of outreach. He has mailed information out twice to the 511 landowners in the two priority watersheds: Money Creek and Torkelson Creek; both are tributaries to the Root River. He also has made follow-up phone calls to more than 80 percent of those landowners, held five outreach events prior to COVID-19 (coronavirus) restrictions, and completed 120 conservation plans – 20 percent more than the grant’s goal.

Woodland owners have been very responsive to the program. Wermager has helped landowners identify land management objectives, such as enhanced wildlife habitat, to design eligible forest stand improvement projects. Removal of invasives like buckthorn, honeysuckle and Japanese Barberry have been the primary goals for those projects. Recently, Wermager connected a landowner with a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources silviculturalist to remove buckthorn on three sites totaling about 20 acres, which will allow the land to be hunted by future generations of land stewards.

Wermager partners with NRCS as part of WCPI, along with neighboring counties, SWCDs and other organizations to maximize the number of landowners reached in the watershed. That also allows him to pull funding and expertise from other sources in order to get more projects done and to provide even more technical assistance to landowners, he said.

“We can tailor the conservation plan to what the landowner is looking for as long as there is a need for each practice within it,” Wermager said. “That’s what I think is so cool about this WCPI work.”

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