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Around Camp Ripley: Ag, forest easements aid habitat, mission

Dan Steward (left), Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources private forest management program coordinator, and Chris Pence, BWSR board conservationist, stop along the Mississippi River during a July 9 tour of Camp Ripley with Jake Kitzmann, Camp Ripley’s natural resources manager. Photo by Ann Wessel, BWSR1 / 2
Jake Kitzmann (left), Camp Ripley’s natural resources manager, and Chris Pence, Board of Water and Soil Resources' conservationist, overlook the center range, where an entire platoon can train. Photo by Ann Wessel, BWSR2 / 2

CAMP RIPLEY—Conservation easements on Camp Ripley's perimeter are preserving fish and wildlife habitat while protecting the Minnesota National Guard's 52,830-acre regional training center from development that could impede its operations.

A partnership between Morrison Soil & Water Conservation District and Camp Ripley has funneled $37.9 million into Morrison, Crow Wing and Cass counties over the past 12 years, working with 232 landowners and 27,800 acres.

Thirty-eight more easements are in the works.

The Army Compatible Use Buffer program, known as ACUB, minimizes infringement within a 3-mile radius of Camp Ripley by purchasing development rights through permanent conservation easements. Landowners receive a per-acre sum and retain the right to continue current land-use—which may include farming and hunting.

"The corn doesn't complain at 2 o'clock in the morning when the great big howitzers go off. And the cattle don't complain. And the trees don't complain. The people do," said Dan Steward, Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources private forest management program coordinator, in a news release.

Camp Ripley operates 24 hours a day, training about 30,000 military personnel and civilians a year—including firefighters, emergency responders, law enforcement officers and snowplow operators.

Housing developments not only bring people closer to the noise of small-weapons training, tanks, planes and helicopters, and the dust of convoys on gravel roads—they also consume more wildlife habitat.

"These military installations were becoming islands for threatened and endangered species. So it was really impacting what the military could do on their own lands," said Josh Pennington, Camp Ripley's environmental supervisor.

The Mississippi River defines 18 miles of Camp Ripley's eastern border; the Crow Wing River marks about 11 miles of its northern boundary. Its forest, prairie and wetland habitats support wolves, red-shouldered hawks and the threatened Northern long-eared bat. Sixty-five Species of Greatest Conservation Need live within its borders.

"The military goals are to prevent incompatible development. You're starting to see more emphasis on protecting critical habitat so we don't just become an island of diversity," Pennington said.

The U.S. Department of Defense's Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration program put nearly $34 million into ACUB at Camp Ripley.

Nearly 650 landowners expressed interest since the program started in 2006. A January informational meeting drew 190 people and garnered 80 new sign-ups.

When ACUB was introduced in 2004, suspicion of a state or federal land-grab fueled opposition that nearly derailed the program.

It took a local contact to work with landowners and a partner agency to execute easements to make ACUB work. Camp Ripley found them in longtime Morrison SWCD Manager Helen McLennan, and in BWSR-administered Reinvest in Minnesota easements. McLennan retired in late October.

"Helen has been a key to the program. The easement program that we do through BWSR being executed through the local soil and water conservation district has been a massive success—over 25,000 acres to date," said Jay Brezinka, environmental program manager for the Minnesota Army National Guard. "It's a formula-based, very streamlined program. She's just got an amazing relationship with landowners. They trust Helen; they respect her decisions."

Lance Chisholm, Morrison SWCD's ACUB/water plan coordinator, worked directly with landowners to secure easements.

"Between Helen and Lance, they've been an excellent team and they apparently have the ability to put landowners at ease," Steward said. "The results speak for themselves. That long landowner waiting list speaks volumes about the quality of the service that the district is providing — and they're doing that primarily through Lance and Helen."

ACUB brought the first working-lands easements to Minnesota.

Originally designed as compensation for retiring marginal farmland, Reinvest in Minnesota was reworked by BWSR staff and modified by the Legislature to fit ACUB. Because landowners relinquished only development rights, Reinvest in Minnesota rates were lower—50 percent of township average land value, compared with 90 percent for farmland.

The money went further.

"It has stayed strong for Camp Ripley even though now there's over 60 military bases with programs. The reason we've stayed strong is our ability to execute," McLennan said.

Doug John enrolled 278 acres in the program a few years ago.

"I know that if I die tomorrow, it isn't going to be broken down into little homesteads," John said.

While the Reinvest in Minnesota easement eliminated concerns about paying taxes, John, 72—a retired clinical psychologist who later managed his parents' restaurant, became a taxidermist, and then a rural mail carrier—said he enrolled primarily to keep intact the Morrison County farm his grandparents had worked to expand over the years.

John moved his family into the house he built on the 360-acre property about 17 years ago. He rented the fields for a few years, and then enrolled the farmland in the Conservation Reserve Program. He's since planted about 80,000 trees.

"I have a little forest. I don't want it destroyed. I don't want to sell it to somebody and have them tear up all the trees and plant corn," John said.

John doesn't expect his two grown children, who live in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, will move back.

"But I do foresee, whenever this comes up for sale, I believe the person who's going to buy it after I die will be a person who hunts and fishes," John said.

Many of those who enrolled through the ACUB program sought a way to pass their land to the next generation. Especially for older landowners with mounting expenses, McLennan said Reinvest in Minnesota payments could mean the difference between selling or staying.

Since it was modified to fit the ACUB program, Reinvest in Minnesota has expanded to help protect northern Minnesota wild rice habitat and lands within the 400-mile-long Mississippi River headwaters region.

"It's had a ripple effect in allowing us to broaden the tool to fit the forested zone better," Steward said. "One of the benefits of taking the RIM program into the trees, so to speak, is land values are so much lower. The money goes much, much further. Land values are about one-fifth to one-sixth what they are in the prairie part of the state."

Protecting the forest surrounding Camp Ripley has brought $5.7 million in Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund investments since 2010, buffering about 4,800 acres—including land surrounding the Little Nokasippi Wildlife Management Area and the confluence of the Little Nokasippi River.

"When we take an easement on wooded land with Lessard dollars, we're protecting one of the best small-mouth bass fisheries in the state in the Mississippi River. It's also one of the best muskie fisheries in the state. It's the Mississippi flyway, so it's huge for waterfowl migration. We're protecting that corridor. Also, songbirds follow the Mississippi River in their migrations, so we're protecting that. Perhaps greatest we're also contributing to protection of Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Cloud drinking water supply," Steward said.

The 480-acre Little Nokasippi River WMA in Crow Wing County was established in 2006 through Camp Ripley's ACUB program, in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy.

"Now the wildlife management area is protecting the Nokasippi River, it's a public accessible hunting place, and it's buffered with RIM easements so it's not encroached on. That residential encroachment can have a negative impact on the public resource of a wildlife management area," said Todd Holman of The Nature Conservancy, Camp Ripley's Sentinel Landscape coordinator.

ACUB's success led Camp Ripley in 2016 to become the sixth federally designated Sentinel Landscape in the U.S.—and the first at a National Guard facility. Sentinel Landscapes sustain compatible land use for military operations while providing conservation and working-land benefits. The ACUB program now operates within that designated landscape.

The designation brought more federal funds, more partnerships and a broader focus within a 10-mile radius of Camp Ripley.

"How do you do Sentinel Landscape? Camp Ripley is the poster child," Holman said. "How do you do RIM is the BWSR book, and that's still being written. BWSR was willing to recraft RIM to fit this big, national objective."

In 2017, the Sentinel Landscape partnership received $2.8 million through the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service' Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

A Baxter-based NRCS forester has been hired. Partnering with the National Park Service could lead to recreational opportunities or cultural resource protection. Collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management, which owns islands in the Mississippi River, has yet to be explored.

The seventh phase of acquisitions planned for this year would add 440 acres of high-quality habitat through seven easements along the Crow Wing, Gull, Nokasippi and Mississippi river corridors. It also would acquire 117 acres from Tiller Corp. and add that land to the Little Nokassippi River WMA through a fee title transfer.

"Over those 15-some years, they've been able to execute more conservation easements than any ACUB installation in the entire country and in the entire Department of Defense," Pennington said.

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.

INFOBOX:

Wildlife, process, rates

WILDLIFE IMPACTS: Sixty-five species of Greatest Conservation Need — defined by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as being at risk because they depend upon rare, declining or vulnerable habitat — live at Camp Ripley.

HOW IT WORKS: Morrison Soil and Water Conservation District works with Camp Ripley Training Center and the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources to secure conservation easements. The Camp Ripley Training Center ranks applicants. The SWCD approaches landowners. BWSR requests funds. SWCD staff monitors land enrolled in the perpetual easements.

RATE ADJUSTMENTS: On land surrounding Camp Ripley, Reinvest in Minnesota rates have twice been adjusted to fit conditions. To encourage enrollment of parcels bordering the Mississippi and Crow Wing rivers, the rate was set at 60 percent of individual parcels' value. It's the first time county assessed value was used for that purpose. A sharp drop in ag land values last year prompted the SWCD to close out existing easements, and then relaunch with a 75 percent rate.