First MN CREP wetland easement
in state augments habitat restoration
Starting with a 2.8-acre filter strip in 2009, Loreli Westby continued down the conservation path of her late father. The Westbys’ most recent work through West Otter Tail SWCD will restore a wetland, provide more wildlife benefits.
DALTON — Set amid West Otter Tail County’s rolling patchwork of hardwoods and fields, the first recorded Minnesota Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program wetland easement in the state fulfills a father’s wish to forever protect the land from development.
The 86-acre MN CREP enrollment protected the final piece of Loreli and Rob Westby’s property. Minnesota Land Trust easements cover the remaining 534 acres.
“I think he’d be very happy and very proud,” Loreli said of her late father, Richard Fihn. “I think he would be pretty excited to see what we’re doing. I have a feeling if he were still here, he would have been working right alongside us.”
The Westbys marked the milestone during a July 12 celebration and tour hosted by West Otter Tail Soil & Water Conservation District and the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR).
The couple worked with West Otter Tail SWCD project manager Aaron Larsen on their first 2.8-acre filter strip in 2009. They enrolled subsequent parcels as conservation programs became available.
“Any time you’re talking perpetual easements, you’re talking about a benefit to the landscape. This area is going to be preserved for future generations,” Larsen said of the MN CREP easement.
MN CREP aims to protect 60,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land within 54 southern and west-central Minnesota counties.
Property owners voluntarily enroll land in the federally funded Conservation Reserve Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, for 14 or 15 years. The land is simultaneously enrolled in a perpetual Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) conservation easement administered by BWSR.
“We can buy lands for (Wildlife Management Areas) and (Scientific and Natural Areas) but we can’t come anywhere near the impact the private citizens can make on their own land,” said Mark Johnson, Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council executive director. “It’s the private landowner who can make the most impact — positively or negatively — on habitat, on pollinators, on wildlife and on clean water.”
The $525 million MN CREP program includes $350 million from the USDA and $175 million from the state. It focuses on filter strips, wetland restorations and wellhead protection.
“When it comes to CREP, it’s a partnership that really depends on local cooperation,” said Leon Johnson, executive director of the USDA’s West Otter Tail County FSA.
At the site, Loreli showed visitors 4-inch-tall wispy prairie clover and bristly black-eyed Susan plants — some of the 32 species of native wildflowers and grasses seeded this spring on a hillside above the soon-to-be-restored wetland. The low area had been ditched, and then planted to wheat, corn or soybeans. Some years it was too wet for the renters to plant. Some years it was too wet to harvest.
Elsewhere on the 86 acres, a 4.5-acre tree and flowering shrub planting will feed and shelter deer, wild turkeys, pheasants, songbirds and pollinators.
The Westbys donated 20 acres (most of it woods; 4.5 acres of it cropland) to the MN CREP easement. It’s rare for easements to cover an entire farm. Because the Westbys’ MN CREP easement builds upon habitat enhancements, it draws from the Outdoor Heritage Fund.
“My dad’s wish before he passed away was that the property be protected from development. All 620 acres of property is now permanently protected from development, and the CRP will stay in grasses, flowers and trees — never to be tilled up again,” Loreli said during the presentation.
A conservationist and outdoorsman, Fihn bought the first 11 acres in the late 1960s. As he and his partners acquired more land, Fihn enhanced wildlife habitat. Hardwoods cover two-thirds of the property, which encompasses more than 1,900 feet of Pomme de Terre River shoreline and several sloughs — all of them enrolled in U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service easements.
The Westbys — who met on the MN CREP property while hunting — continue to hunt deer, waterfowl, pheasants and wild turkeys on the land.
“We don’t have any children. It was important for us to know that when we’re gone, that it’ll be the way it is now forever, and someone else can enjoy it,” Rob said.
The Westbys are among approximately 200 Minnesota landowners who have applied for MN CREP since enrollment opened in May 2017. During this first year, more than 150 have been accepted for funds totaling $49.2 million and affecting about 5,720 acres.
Landowners work directly with their local Soil and Water Conservation District, Farm Service Agency or Natural Resources Conservation Service office.
“Our job is to figure out how to make these things work, but it all starts with the landowners wanting to do something. I want to thank all the farmers who’ve done things in the past,” said John Jaschke, BWSR executive director.
STATE FUNDING SOURCES: Because this easement builds upon habitat restoration, it draws from the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Other state funding comes from the Clean Water Fund, the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, and state bonding.
The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources’ mission is to improve and protect Minnesota’s water and soil resources by working in partnership with local organizations and private landowners. Website: www.bwsr.state.mn.us.