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SWCD News: Put your money where your mouth is

- Herwig (on right) with NRCS researchers who monitored wildlife reaction to habitat improvements made at Camp Moosehorn. (2015 photo by Kim Samuelson) 1 / 6
Hunting is good in and around Camp Moosehorn. Herwig with grouse and woodcock in late October 2016. (photo by Mark Herwig) 2 / 6
Flowers established themselves after the ground at Camp Moosehorn was disturbed by plowing, thus benefitting increasingly rare pollinators such as bees and butterflies. (photo by Mark Herwig) 3 / 6
Local and state officials learn about NRCS habitat improvement efforts done at Camp Moosehorn. Pictured are: Mark Privratsky, Congressman Rick Nolan's Aide; H. Merrill Loy, Carlton SWCD Supervisor District #3; Ryan Hughes, MN Board of Water and Soil Resources; Steve Cole, NRCS; and James Nynas, Carlton SWCD Supervisor District #2. (photo by Kim Samuelson) 4 / 6
Nodding trillium wildflower at Camp Moosehorn. (photo by Mark Herwig) 5 / 6
A local contractor planting a foodplot at Camp Moosehorn. Note the deer stand in upper right. Healthy forests and hunting are good for the local economy. (photo by Mark Herwig) 6 / 6

"All talk and no action” and "Put your money where your mouth is." These are two sayings people use to signify when someone says what he feels and wants, but he doesn't act on it.

After years of talking, or better said writing, about others' conservation projects, Carlton County landowner Mark Herwig started doing. He's putting his money where his mouth (and his heart) are!

Because he turned his talk into action, Herwig was recently honored as the 2016 Outstanding Conservationist by the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) for the work and improvements he's done on his 44 acres of land on County Road 4 west of Mahtowa.

"The SWCD recognizes conservation efforts in Carlton County each year,” said Brad Matlack, Carlton SWCD manager. “The Outstanding Conservationist award is reserved for a landowner who lives by a conservation ethic, and Mark has demonstrated this not only in his career as a writer, but also as a landowner creating multi-species habitat for game and non-game wildlife on his property."

Will Bomier, former District Conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), also applauded Mark’s “life-long commitment to conservation."

"Many people will implement conservation practices," said Bomier. “But unlike Mark, those who implement the conservation lifestyle are less common."

Born in Iowa and raised in southern Minnesota, Herwig is very familiar with that landscape which, as he called it, is "pretty bare. Nothing's there but farms," no hills, few trees, just farm after farm "of plowed fields with corn and beans and other crops." Now, mind you, there's nothing wrong with growing crops. These farms grow the food that the rest of us eat. However, as the years went by, Herwig watched as more native pastures and forests were bulldozed and plowed to plant even more crops. If, like Herwig, you enjoy the forest and hunting sports, this landscape can look pretty bleak.

As he appreciated and grabbed any chance to spend time in the woods, Herwig decided to attend the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He fell in love with the diversity of the northeastern Minnesota landscape with its big and little lakes, trees and grasslands, ponds and wetlands.

After he graduated, Herwig left the state for work. But he always gravitated back to northern Minnesota for vacation trips. He had a deep need to get back to the woods. He explored the northern countryside with friends. He backpacked and canoed in the Boundary Waters. He attended the Bayfront Blues Fest and other outdoors events. He hunted for grouse, turkey, deer and waterfowl along the North Shore. In essence, he put his free money and time where his mouth and heart were.

His love for the outdoors and hunting led Herwig to start writing about his and other people's experiences and discoveries and projects. His writings have been published in Quails Forever (QF), Pheasants Forever (PF), Ruffed Grouse Association, Woodcock Limited, Forest Industry Magazine, and DNR's Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. He even became one of the first members of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, which started in his hometown of Albert Lea.

About 18 years ago, Herwig was hired to be the editor of Pheasants Forever, a dream job for a man who loved the outdoors, travel, hunting, and meeting people. Through this job, he has visited 40 states and hunted in 32 of them. He has met, photographed and written about many PF and QF members who have done habitat projects. He noted their "satisfaction in doing a project and seeing it flourish." And wherever he went, he learned from others while sharing with them what he knew about nature and conservation issues.

However, after years of seeing projects done by others, writing about their experiences, and hunting on their land, Herwig decided it was time to put his money where his mouth and heart were. "After writing other people's stories all these years," he said, "I wanted to write my own story!"

So, about four years ago, he looked for land in northern Minnesota. Land that would give him a place of his own to hunt; land that would satisfy his cravings to be in the woods; land where he could do his own projects. But he also wanted land that wasn't too far from the Twin Cities area, where he still lives and works, and was close enough to visit and hunt with his friends in northern Minnesota.

He looked at several pieces of property but chose to buy this land in Mahtowa because he liked the habitat diversity.

“This land had forest and wetlands,” he said, “grassland along the power line, and open water” in the several ponds on different parts of the property. He stressed that "habitat diversity equals wildlife diversity," and he believes strongly in diversity of both.

In addition, through his many years of traveling, interviewing, researching and writing, Herwig has amassed immense and diverse information about everything and anything from conservation issues to habitat diversity, and from wildlife (birds to mammals to reptiles to bugs) to the different trees, grasses and wildflowers.

So now, he could not only learn more about everything on his own property, but he could also hunt or just watch the wildlife. He learned about the trumpeter swans and sandhill cranes that visit, the butterflies and bees his pollinator plants are attracting, the snowberries and dogwood, and the bunchberries and Bluebead lilies which, "have little yellow flowers and blue berries that are bad for you." He emphasized that "nature is a dynamic system, always changing!" and that having his own land gives him the chance "to see what's going on all around me and to enjoy the wildflowers and wildlife."

Herwig loves spending time at his property. From early spring through late fall, he enjoys early morning walks listening to nature wake up, followed by days of working on satisfying improvement projects, evenings of listening to bird and wildlife action, and nights of sitting by the fire and sleeping in his little trailer. Wherever he roams, though, he is never far from his trusty and well-used field guides to refresh his memory or to look up information about new plants and animals.

He named his little piece of northwood's heaven, "Camp Moosehorn," he explained, "after the river where the water from my land drains. It's important to know your 'watershed address,' and it's important for each of us to take care of our land and the water on it. My water runs to the Moosehorn River, which runs to the Kettle River, which runs to the St. Croix River, which runs to the Mississippi River," which runs to the Gulf of Mexico. Herwig knows that water from his land goes a long way and that "it's important for all of us to keep the water clean" not only for humans, but for animals, birds, fish, trees and plants.

Herwig has also been putting his money where his mouth and heart are in regards to improvements. He immediately contacted NRCS to learn about his property and to find out what programs could help him improve the wildlife habitat on his land.

"He did things right by starting with an overall Forest Management Plan," said Bomier, "but, instead of putting that plan on the shelf and letting it collect dust, he brought it back into our office and asked, 'OK, how do we get started doing this stuff.'"

Herwig then talked with a Sappi forester about managing his forest. He learned that Minnesota is the best state in the U.S. for forest management, for harvesting trees and keeping the forest diverse. However, according to that forester, our state could sustainably double the harvest of trees and further benefit the forests. It's not good to have all trees only of one age or one species. Diverse forest age attracts diverse wildlife, and diverse tree species make the forest more resistant to insect damage, wind damage, and other natural calamities.

Herwig also enrolled his property with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Inc., a nonprofit organization that has the world's largest forest certification system. He receives a small monetary payment for each acre of land in exchange for the promise to comply with SFI standards and to not develop the property for several years.  

"Mark implemented the first Young Forest (or Early Successional Forest) project in Carlton County," according to Bomier. Through this project (part of NRCS's EQIP - Environmental Quality Incentives Program), Herwig learned about the habitat that attracts the golden-winged warbler and woodcock. He arranged to have four patches of his forest clearcut except for the "calling trees" that warblers need to find mates. He learned how hard it was to find a logger to take on a small acre logging project. (He enticed one with a discount on stumpage as well as benefits of having the cut marked by NRCS and having easy access to a paved road.) He learned about the need for winter/frozen ground logging to encourage aspen regeneration by protecting roots from equipment damage.

He even allowed his property to be one of many in northern Minnesota involved in NRCS's project monitoring effort (summer-long bird counts done during 2015) to see if the EQIP program was effective.

"Will (Bomier) told me the counters found the best and biggest diversity of birds on my property!" he said excitedly.

But Herwig has been busy, too, putting his own labor into the improvements.

"Mark has gone on to create brush piles for wildlife,” said Bomier, “and has planted pollinator-friendly species as well as trees and shrubs, like red oak, swamp white oak, red elderberry, and highbush cranberries for ruffed grouse and other birds."

He’s also fenced around some of the plants to give them the chance to survive deer browsing. He has been trimming the aspen away from the sugar maples (in hopes of someday tapping the maples to make maple syrup). And he has been really excited to see the wild rice he harvested at Kettle Lake begin to grow and spread in some of his ponds.

In addition, Herwig had a contractor plow up a field to create a wildlife food plot for deer hunting. Once the annual plants died over the winter and didn't come up the second year, he was amazed "to see the field become full of native flowers that attracted hundreds bees and butterflies!"

"It took me awhile to realize that this is a common practice in grassland management, to plow up a monoculture of grasses and sedges,” he said. “It disturbs the soil and allows the wildflower seeds a chance to grow" where they don't have fight with the grasses. Again...more diversity in habitat and wildlife.

Regarding future plans, Herwig will continue doing what he's doing to diversify the forest and landscape.

"Mark is constantly looking for ways to improve his property for all kinds of wildlife,” said Bomier.

One plan Herwig has is to sprout some mountain ash trees next spring to plant at Camp Moosehorn. "Grouse love the berries," he said.

So where does all this dedication come from? Herwig feels "hunters take a lot from the land so we have an obligation to give back. No relationship works if you just take, take, take. You've got to give back."

And what advice does Herwig have for other landowners in Carlton County? He says they should "dream about what they would like to do with their property and then act on that dream." If you have forests, he encourages you to call the Carlton SWCD, NRCS, or ABC (American Bird Conservancy) to come out and teach you about your property, to discuss your goals and options, and to inform you about what programs might help you reach those goals. If you have farmland, he urges you to "farm the best and conserve the rest" by using some of your land for wildlife habitat. Herwig promotes the use of conservation programs and asks people to contact legislators to support and fund these programs.

"It's a treat for me to be in the forest,” said Herwig after spending so much of his life in farm country and cities. Compared to him, many in Carlton County see our forests all the time and the trees have become "part of the background," almost unseen. However, if we in Carlton County didn't enjoy our forests, we wouldn't be living here, right? But maybe we should, like Mark Herwig, start putting our money where our mouths and our hearts are.

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Kim Samuelson is the District 4 representative on the SWCD Board of Supervisors. If you would like more information about the SWCD or about how to clarify and reach your goals for your property, call the SWCD office at 218-384-3891, check them out on Facebook, or go to www.carltonswcd.org.

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