Glacial Ridge: A Big Gamble

“No one had ever tried restoring prairie and wetlands at this scale.”

Those were Rob McKim’s thoughts back in 1999 when he looked at the map. Tilden Farms, a large expanse of consolidated ranches and farms near Crookston in northwest Minnesota, was for sale. The property was near natural areas such as Pembina Trail Preserve SNA that conserved rare remnants of prairie habitat in an agricultural landscape. McKim, then Minnesota state director for The Nature Conservancy, was reviewing the map with staff and considering purchasing those portions of the property that contained prairie remnants to complement the nearby preserves.

“One of our staff members said, ‘Why don’t we just buy it all?’ I looked at the map and thought, ‘That’s not a bad idea,’” McKim recalls. “That’s what got us thinking big about the whole thing.”

The soil at Tilden Farms was not good for agriculture; it was formed from the sandy, gravely beach ridges of Glacial Lake Agassiz that drained a melting glacier at the end of the Pleistocene, some 12,000 years ago. The “Ridge” was not intensively farmed until commodity prices made even marginal lands potentially profitable. As a result, tallgrass prairie remnants had survived in the area, and the Conservancy purchased several properties in the 1970s to protect valuable habitat for wildlife such as greater prairie chickens.

Now the Conservancy had an opportunity to buy an enormous parcel: 24,158 acres that, when restored and combined with adjacent state lands and preserves, would conserve approximately 55 square miles of prairies and wetlands. McKim flew over the property and was astonished by what he saw. “You just cannot believe the enormity of it until you’re over it in a small plane, and you realize you can’t see it all. You start counting sections (a section is 640 acres or about one square mile), and you can see 10 to 12 at a time – that’s big.”

The purchase price was $9 million, and the Conservancy borrowed the money with letters of support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). NRCS provided assistance through its Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). WRP offers assistance to landowners willing to protect and restore wetlands and adjacent uplands. However, WRP grants are paid only after land is restored. Given the scale of the project, the financial risk to the Conservancy to buy the property was huge.

The Conservancy also needed the support of local officials to make the project work. County boards and other government bodies worried the project could remove the equivalent of an entire township from their tax base. Answering their concerns was the immediate job of Ron Nargang, former deputy director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, who joined the Conservancy’s staff in 1999. Nargang began holding monthly public meetings with local stakeholders to ensure their voices were heard as project planning took place.

Nargang was able to assure local officials that Glacial Ridge would remain on the tax rolls. Acres that couldn’t be immediately restored were temporarily leased for farming and the fees placed in an endowment established to pay local property taxes in perpetuity. More revenue for the endowment came from gravel mining. A gravel mining firm operated an open pit mine at Glacial Ridge and had the right to essentially mine the entire property. Nargang renegotiated their lease, allowing the mine to continue to extract gravel from a limited area within Glacial Ridge provided they gave up their right to mine the rest of the property.

The Conservancy received critical support for Glacial Ridge’s restoration from more than 30 partners. And as the project got underway, the Conservancy hired Keith Mykleseth as project manager and Jason Ekstein as restoration ecologist. From the local community, both men played key roles in the project’s success including overseeing a decade of engineering, earth-moving, seed collection, prairie planting and wetland restoration. The Conservancy also worked with area businesses to benefit the local economy.

But restoring Glacial Ridge would be daunting. Rob McKim and Brian Winter, the program director for the Conservancy’s Northern Tallgrass Prairie Ecoregion, visited the property before work began. They discovered decrepit buildings and abandoned feedlots with dead livestock piled up, and as they approached a pressurized outdoor diesel fuel tank, it blew “like Old Faithful,” Winter recalls, spraying a fine mist of oil onto their pickup truck.

McKim was undeterred. The challenge was to restore and reassemble the fragments of this grassland, to make it whole again. “When you look at tallgrass prairies, sometimes it feels like you’re grasping at pottery shards in the sand,” McKim says. “It’s so exciting when you hold them, but it doesn’t mean that they’re still functioning – that they can hold water again. They’re relics. So when you get a chance to put a bunch of those shards back together, and, when put back together, they function again – that’s the best. That was our gamble.”

It was a big gamble: Could Glacial Ridge really be put back together?

Reconstructing the Prairie: Part 2