Group wins $2M grant

FAIRMONT — The Fox Lake Conservation League has been awarded more than $2 million for a public lands project that is open for public use, including hunting.

The application process was a long one, but thanks to partnering with larger conservation organizations, the league’s Doug Hartke is happy to announce the receipt of the funds.

“Essentially it was 2016-2017 when we did our first application for the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, and I think we probably asked for $3 million and we were awarded $1 million,” he said. “Then in 2017-2018 we applied again, but were unsuccessful. Then we revamped our application process, worked with Ducks Unlimited and the Conservation Fund.

“Fox Lake Conservation League is the applying organization, but we’re partnering with the Conservation Fund for the appraisal, all of the pre-purchase criteria, the survey and all of the real estate functions, and then Ducks Unlimited does the grassland and restoration plan. This really helped Fox Lake because instead of being the lone eagle from a small conservation organization, I had the powers of two big national organizations that do grant work every year at Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

“So we went through the process last year and they recommended Fox Lake get $2.447 million, and then the governor just signed that bill here a few weeks ago after a very difficult legislative session. We should get our grant contract between now and Aug. 1, and then we’ll actually start working on our parcel list and doing an appraisal and then making an offer to the landowner, and hopefully we can get a large chunk of land with the grant dollars we were awarded.”

Hartke noted that land acquisition is a delicate process, especially when people fear that suitable farm land may get taken up for various habitats.

“When we choose a piece of property we’re interested in, it does have significant wetland or grassland importance to add additional habitat to our Wildlife Management areas where we already have habitat. I think sometimes the ag community gets concerned that we’re out there buying up farm land, and we’re not actively looking at most farm land. We’re being very highly selective of where we’re looking, and I would say that 96 to 97 percent of the county we’re not interested in.”

Hartke said they look specifically at land that is adjacent to current projects, in order to grow existing habitats.

“I’ll use the Caron Wildlife Management Area northwest of Sherburn, that’s one of our high priority areas, and it’s close to Fox Lake, it’s close to our base of operation. So we’re always looking at property that touches the Caron WMA, because if we add to the existing complexes that we have it will do more benefit than starting over with a small piece of land somewhere by itself. So if we can make these habitat complexes larger, it makes them better.”

“With Ducks Unlimited involvement, we’re definitely looking for wetland restorations. Ninety-eight percent or more of Martin County wetlands are gone. So wherever we can re-establish them and restore wetlands back, it’s going to mean clean water and the chance to clean up our watersheds.”

Hartke noted that one of the things that made the grant application possible is the cooperation between all the various conservation groups in Martin County.

“All our groups work together,” he said. “Whether it’s Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Fox Lake, Martin County Conservation Club or others. We’re all fundraising and doing our own thing, but we have a very unique situation in Martin County where we’re all really working well together. We’re really getting noticed in the state because in most places different chapters and groups won’t talk to each other.

“The other thing is that the Martin County commissioners have been fantastic to work with,” he continued. “We update them on every purchase or anytime we get into an agreement, and the board has been awesome to work with.”