OUR NEIGHBORS...‘Get outside and get muddy’

Even with three bachelor's degrees -- in horticulture, wildlife biology and education -- and a master's degree in forest hydrology plus 20 years of working for the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District, Esko's Kelly Smith offers sim...

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Even with three bachelor’s degrees - in horticulture, wildlife biology and education - and a master's degree in forest hydrology plus 20 years of working for the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District, Esko’s Kelly Smith offers simple words of wisdom to others.

“Get outside and get muddy,” the SWCD conservation technician tells kids. "Spend time outdoors exploring the natural world around you."  

Smith encourages college students to "find someone who is doing what you want to do and follow them around for a few days. Get into an apprenticeship that will open your eyes and give you a huge advantage in getting a job in your field."

If you are a landowner or occupier and need some information, guidance and/or help on just about any natural resource issue or problem, Smith is there to help you.

Want to know how to manage your forest? Ask Kelly Smith.


Have problems with Buckthorn or Purple Loosestrife? Ask Smith.

Need to know what kind of trees to plant or how to keep the deer from eating them? Want to know why your pasture isn't as productive? Having problems with your shoreline eroding? Again … ask Kelly Smith.

"Kelly is our 'go to' person in the office, the one we go to for information about projects and the histories behind them,” said SWCD District Manager Brad Matlack. “As times have changed through these last 20 years, Kelly has done a great job adapting to lots of different programs."

In January, Smith was honored for 20-plus years of employment and service with the SWCD.

A quiet man of few words, Smith's lifelong commitment to natural resources shows not only in his dedication to his job, but also in his knowledge, his education, his lifestyle. Who is this man who gets excited and passionate about trees and pastures and stream bank erosion? What makes him tick?

Before he was hired by Carlton SWCD, Smith worked as a hydrologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, conducting research on how the fluctuating water levels in Iron Range open pit mines affected area rivers and lakes and surrounding landowners. For several years before that, he worked as a naturalist for Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center helping students explore and learn about the natural world around them.

His years at Carlton SWCD have been filled with continuing education, including special training in forestry and writing Forest Management Plans. Those achievements also show his dedication and hard work, as well as years of study and research, all devoted to natural resources.

"Kelly is considered by many, including the Minnesota DNR, as an area expert on writing Forest Management Plans," said H. Merrill Loy, SWCD supervisor from District 3. "At one time, the DNR contracted with the SWCD to have Kelly write Forest Management Plans they didn't have time to do. Satisfied landowners praised Kelly's work and the DNR formally complimented him several times for the excellent work he did. Kelly has also been our representative for many years on the Woodland Council, a local group of landowners interested in forestry issues. As forestry is an important resource in our area and as some programs require a Forest Management Plan, we are very proud to have Kelly on our staff."


Through the last 20 years, Smith has seen many changes in what is considered good conservation and in the way natural resources are viewed and managed.

Years ago, people in forestry planted tree farms using monoculture (just one species of tree) and harvested trees by clear cutting. Through the years, though, research has shown the negative impacts of this type of forestry, including:

  • The changing market (which may not want that tree species at harvest time);

  • New diseases (that mainly attack one species);

  • Storms (which can take down trees in a domino effect on a tree farm).

Now, prevailing practices in forest management encourage diverse species and selective harvesting, which lead to healthier forests with more wildlife, easier maintenance from invasive plants and insects and diseases, and increased profits for landowners.
Farming has also changed through the years. In the early years, Smith worked a lot helping farmers control runoff from feedlots and improve water quality on and around farms. As many cattle farms have gone out of business, more of the farm projects now involve maintaining and improving fields and crop production.

Even those practices have changed.

In the past, standard farming practices involved plowing fields clear (without any soil cover), pouring on the NPK fertilizer (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), and developing filter strips to catch eroding soil.

Now, soil health is the new "buzz word," and farmers are encouraged to naturally build up the health of their soil by using cover crops, integrating livestock and crop rotations on fields, as well as incorporating new ways to distribute water from wetter areas to drier areas. Besides increased soil and crop health, these new farming practices can help decrease farmers' input costs and labor while increasing crop yields and financial profits. It’s a win-win all around…for the farmers, the environment, and the consumers.

Watershed projects are also on the rise. These types of projects used to mostly be a result of landowners seeking SWCD assistance to stabilize stream banks, improve river and lake water quality, or divert water runoff. However, because of the development of targeted priority areas, the SWCD now actively seeks landowners in these priority areas to work cooperatively in projects to restore health to streams, rivers, wetlands and lakes.

In addition, watershed reclamation projects have taken higher priority.


Carlton County's red clay dams, which were created in the 1970s for natural resource benefits, are starting to wear out and those landowners now find they have to choose between repairing the dams or restoring the watershed's health through removal of the dams and restoring the natural shaping of the streams, shores, and floodplains.

While Smith has enjoyed most of the projects he has worked with through the years, a few of them made big impacts on his life.

He enjoys seeing the now 18-foot tall trees that he and many others in the city of Carlton planted at Carlton’s Wayside Park (now Hobo Junction Park) in 2008.

He finds working with Rick and Karola Dalen at their Wrenshall Township farm fascinating, as they experiment with different techniques to deal with varying water needs now that farmers here seem to be faced with extreme conditions of drought or flooding more frequently.

Also particularly satisfying was a 2013 project with landowners Mike Salzer and Mike Guite of Blackhoof Township, to protect Elim Creek. With help from other agencies, Smith worked with the landowners to erect an access control fence to help Salzer control his cattle's access to Elim Creek. In addition, a gravity-fed livestock watering area also helps Salzer rotate his cattle between pastures outside of the creek valley. Smith is very happy to see the healing in the Elim Creek system, complete with improved water quality and the grassing over of the formerly raw stream banks.

Twenty years of projects have led to many unforgettable experiences and Smith recounts two of his favorites. One unforgettable experience involved working with Conservation Corps employees putting up metal cages to keep deer from eating the young trees planted along the Midway River. To save time, the group decided to use a canoe to float the fence posts down the river.

Good idea, wrong location.

The canoe hit a rock, tipped over and filled with water. As a result, it took even more time and work to rescue the posts and free the canoe. A very "refreshing," learning experience that Smith still laughs about!

The other awesome experience came shortly after Smith started working at the SWCD. Aerial photography was not well developed then, and they wanted a better idea of what kind of damage there was along the Nemadji River. Smith and a co-worker paddled down the river from Highway 23 to County W in Wisconsin to take notes and photos of damaged areas. He is still impressed and awed by memories of the numbers of landslides they saw, some of them several stories high, some up to a half mile long, and some of them closing off up to two-thirds of the river.   

Smith's passion for natural resources also shows in his choice of personal "hero." Instead of the usual famous person, Smith looks up to Mike Miles, an innovative Wisconsin farmer.

Miles is “doing tremendous work in improving the health of his soil and pastures,” Smith said. “He's rotating his beef cows often with high quality grass finishing. He rotates vegetables and cover crops. He shapes his fields to spread water out. He has improved native pollinator habitats. He uses agro-forestry practices of rows of tree crops with grazing in between."

Miles is, like Smith, an ordinary man doing extraordinary things in his community with great results.

These same kinds of practices are what Smith sees for future SWCD projects - projects with other conservation agencies to enable farmers to improve soil health or help landowners afford to improve the health of their forest stands. Or projects in watersheds using the Conservation Corps, which Smith believes have made a huge change in the ability to get project work done by employing students who bring good energy and hard work and, in return, receive valuable experiences and knowledge.

In January, Smith was honored for more than 20 years of employment and service with the SWCD. If you subtract weekends, vacations, holidays, and sick days, that totals over 5,000 work days, or 40,000 hours.

Those 20-plus years of experiences and knowledge have given Carlton County a man who NRCS District Conservationist Will Bomier called "irreplaceable" as well as valued and important "for all of the knowledge and experience he has, especially for the years of project information in his memory."

Kim Samuelson is the District 4 Carlton County SWCD supervisor and a freelance writer with a passion for conservation.For more on the SWCD, visit or call 218-384-3891.

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