Return on investment: For those who don't know, this simply means what you get (return) for what you give (invest). And as a taxpayer, you have the right and responsibility to ask about the returns (services given) for your investments (taxes).

Every year, the Carlton Soil and Water Conservation District publishes an annual report that tells taxpayers and Carlton County landowners what their ROI is for the federal, state and local public funds that support SWCD programs, projects and staff. Using these funds, as well as awarded grants, Carlton SWCD works to fulfill its mission to "assist landowners in protecting and enhancing the natural resources of Carlton County."

Many SWCD projects and programs have been presented to you through articles in the county's newspapers. However, the following information will take you further "behind the scenes" regarding the services the SWCD provides to county landowners.

SWCD funds landowners' projects

Working with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the SWCD brought planning services to landowners of 2,720 acres in Carlton County during 2018. Of this number, 728 acres were involved in implemented projects, ranging from installing culverts and controlling erosion, to maintaining dams and riparian buffers, to improving forest stands.

"Carlton SWCD offers technical and financial assistance to landowners to help them design and pay for conservation practice implementation," according to Brad Matlack, Carlton SWCD manager. Although the designs that the SWCD develops for conservation projects aren't always implemented right away, much of the planning work does result in implementation in future years.

In fact, "in 2018 alone, Carlton SWCD directly funded $44,421 in projects with Carlton landowners," Matlack said. "In addition, the SWCD's federal partners funded an additional $147,422 in projects, for a total of $191,843 in conservation projects implemented" in the county.

Consulting with forest landowners and creating Forest Stewardship Plans continues to be a key service of the Carlton SWCD and occupies much of the work that forestry specialist Kelly Smith does. He also works with the Conservation Corps of Minnesota to assist landowners in the "tough and time-consuming job of helping young trees survive the first few years after planting," Smith said.

Moreover, Smith works, too, with the Kettle River Woodland Council, and in 2018, he helped coordinate a Forestry Management Day for timber and wildlife as well as three "Walk in the Woods" events. These very successful events brought over 125 forest landowners in contact with forestry professionals who assisted them in learning how to achieve their forest management goals.

Through grant funds from the Lake Superior Coastal Program of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, landowners in the St. Louis River Watershed were contacted to see how many were interested in planning and implementing forest riparian buffer conservation work. Due to the concern of local fisheries managers about the effects of slowly warming trout stream waters on brook trout and fisheries, forest riparian buffers have become even more important.

"A highly functioning forest riparian buffer provides critical conservation benefits to the streams," Smith said.

As a result of SWCD contacts, about one-third of the landowners indicated interest, including the Fond Du Lac Tribal Forestry and the Carlton County Land Department, and plans were developed for several projects which are goals for future grants. So far, Smith worked with landowners to establish forest riparian buffers at five different sites involving 14.2 acres to improve and protect 2.3 miles of priority trout streams.

Major watershed project completed, another started

Conservation Corps of Minnesota staff work on thinning a red pine plantation for
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Cloquet. Photo courtesy of Carlton SWCD
Conservation Corps of Minnesota staff work on thinning a red pine plantation for Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Cloquet. Photo courtesy of Carlton SWCD

Besides riparian buffer work, there were several watershed projects and events accomplished in 2018. In fact, one major project started while another was completed, according to Melanie Bomier, water quality specialist.

"The Nemadji Watershed was selected for a One Watershed One Plan (1W1P) planning grant in 2018," Bomier said.

This grant will "allow Carlton SWCD to begin transitioning from county water planning to watershed-wide planning," which presents new challenges working across county lines, she said.

However, Bomier is confident that "it will help us better manage our natural resources" through prioritized, targeted and measurable implementation plans."

While the 1W1P was in its initial phases, the culvert Inventory was being completed. With an Enbridge Ecofootprint Grant, the SWCD worked with the Carlton County Transportation Department to inventory culverts on all county-maintained roads.

"The goal of this project was to evaluate the location and condition, as well as the biological and water quality impact of every culvert," Bomier said. At the end of the project, 1,911 culverts were evaluated and 75% of them were found to be undersized. Many were also found to be in poor condition, perched or showing erosion issues.

As a result of this project, the culvert inventory was used after 2018 floods washed away many culverts in the southern part of the county. Pre-storm measurements from the inventory helped in replacing culverts to better match streams. Thus, "culverts that had been sized to the stream survived the flood with little damage and prevented waters from overtopping the road," noted Bomier.

"This saved money in costly repairs and allowed county residents to continue using the roads after flooding," she said.

SWCD works with farmers

Educating landowners about watershed issues is also an important goal of the SWCD, and Bomier has been working with landowners and professionals in groups and projects in all four watersheds in Carlton County.

In the Kettle River Watershed, landowners and residents, as well as resource professionals, participated in a bus tour of the watershed in June 2018. This tour, funded by a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Civic Engagement grant, followed the Kettle and Moose Horn rivers from their headwaters near Cromwell to where they join together in Pine County.

Many important watershed topics were discussed at stops along the way, including forest resources, shoreline management, restoring streams, wild rice protection, and culvert importance in stream connectivity. In addition, the Elim Creek Bioblitz in July 2018 brought together a group of dedicated volunteers to "collect and identify macroinvertebrates (or bugs) in Elim Creek" in the Nemadji Watershed, according to Bomier.

"In 2014, a series of three dams were removed and Elim Creek was restored to a flowing channel," and professionals wanted to learn how the stream was recovering, " she said.

Working with farmers has always been one of the foundations of SWCD work, and this has kept Ryan Clark, ag water quality certification specialist, and Laura Christensen, ag specialist, extremely busy in the county and throughout northeast Minnesota.

"Twelve new farms were added to the MAWQCP (Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program) in northeast Minnesota" during 2018, Clark said.

Christensen said that "soil health remains a popular topic" and the MAWQCP "has helped many area farmers fund practices like cover crops and prescribed grazing."

Progress made on brushland habitat efforts

Great strides were also made in Brushland Habitat Management and Enhancement during 2018, according to Jacob Granfors, RIM easement specialist. Granfors is a joint technician for both Carlton and Aitkin SWCDs through a joint venture with Pheasants Forever and with support from various state and federal conservation agencies. He works specifically on conservation easement and wildlife habitat projects, especially with sharp-tailed grouse.

Granfors noted that during 2018, habitat was "enhanced through tree removal, prescribed fire, conservation grazing, brush mowing and shearing," which will "improve and maintain high-quality brushland habitat" for sharp-tails, bobolink, yellow rail, sharp-tailed sparrow, short-eared owl, sandhill crane and northern harrier.

"In Carlton County, there were 881 acres mowed across six projects," which Granfors stated will greatly "improve open landscape habitats needed" for these wildlife.

SWCD mentors interns, apprentices

To top off the year, Carlton SWCD staff were pleased and excited to teach and mentor three apprentices and interns through the year.

Eimy Quispe, from Connecticut, spent the 2018 summer through the Conservation Apprenticeship Academy, a program of the CCM funded through the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. She was important in helping with the culvert inventory, stream surveys, water monitoring, and outreach events.

Tyler Hey, from Carlton, also worked for the summer as an intern through the Northeast Minnesota Office of Job Training. He was very much appreciated as he worked to complete stream surveys, assisted with water quality and biological monitoring, and helped to manage and organize the summer's data.

Chris Gass, from St. Cloud and a Minnesota Duluth graduate, is an intern from an MPCA program in partnership with Americorps. Gass, who will have served Carlton SWCD for 11 months when he leaves in September, has been invaluable in his efforts to expand engagement with city residents especially in regards to stormwater and urban forestry. He has also done great work in assessing road clearing practices, creating informational handouts, establishing an "Adopt a Drain Program" and assisting cities with tree management plans.

SWCD educates youth

Volunteers examine bugs at the Elim Creek Bioblitz. Photo courtesy of Carlton SWCD
Volunteers examine bugs at the Elim Creek Bioblitz. Photo courtesy of Carlton SWCD

SWCD staff also helped hundreds of youth to explore the natural world and learn about the care of our natural resources. The annual Area 3 SWCD Envirothon, held in May, is an outdoor learning event for high school students to test their knowledge about forestry, wildlife, water quality, soils and environmental current events.

The annual Arbor Day Tree Planting, also held in May, helps fourth-graders from Carlton County schools learn about forests and how to plant trees.

The Stream Table, provided by the SWCD to area elementary schools, gives hands-on demonstrations about watersheds, streams, erosion, sediment control and conservation.

Local residents acknowledged for conservation

Last, but not least, Carlton SWCD recognized four individuals or families in 2018 for the conservation work they have done in the county. Honored were Steve Risacher, of Wright, Soil Health Conservationist; Bob Nelson, of Cloquet, Urban Forestry Conservationist; Vicki and Terry Anderson, of Cloquet, Pollinator Conservationists; and Alan Finifrock, of Cloquet, Outstanding Conservationist.

Finifrock was also chosen as the 2018 Minnesota Tree Farmer of the year as well as one of eight finalists for Minnesota's Outstanding Conservationist Award.

Smith, who has worked with Finifrock for many years, stated that "Alan promotes woodland management. ... He leaves a conservation legacy" and shares appreciation for the forest with everyone he comes in contact with.

What Finifrock does is what the Carlton SWCD also aims to do: share appreciation for our natural resources and help others to conserve, learn about and protect these resources.

We want to help everyone leave a conservation legacy. And this, as Paul Harvey used to say, is "the rest of the story."

For more information about Carlton SWCD, go to facebook.com/CarltonSWCD or carltonswcd.org.