Walking the conservation talk – the importance of leading by example

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know my conservation colleagues in the Lower St. Croix watershed over the past couple years. I consider myself a perpetual student – I’m always happiest when I’m learning something new and cool and I’m able to connect that new learning to things I already know. The conservation staff I work with across five counties – whether they are at the county office, soil and water conservations districts, watershed districts, or watershed management organizations – are so knowledgeable and passionate about what they do. I feel like a sponge – just always soaking up new knowledge and information.

But the biggest impact these folks have had on me is not measured by the number of site visits they do, or the scale of the projects they take on and help with – it’s really in how they’ve taken what they do and live that message in their personal lives. In short, they talk the talk, and they really walk the walk. It’s inspiring, and it makes them even better resources when connecting with landowners or different groups of people who are interested in trying different conservation practices. They know personally what it takes, and they are happy to share those experiences and perspectives.

So today, I’m featuring three of them, and it’s strategic, because each of them are speaking at three different events next Thursday, March 2nd. Depending on your interests and availability, you should come check any of them out. You won’t regret it – I promise.

Angie Hong – Native Plant Maven

One of my favorite things about Angie is that no matter where we meet in Washington County, invariably somebody recognizes her and comes up to introduce themselves. As the primary educator of the locally-funded East Metro Water Resource Education Program (or EMWREP for short) for the past 17 years, she’s become a familiar figure across the basin. From running events all over the county, to writing her weekly blog posts and news articles for the Stillwater Gazette, to helping build partnerships and driving up volunteer interest, to her pandemic activity of starting a Tiktok channel that blew up and now routinely gets thousands to hundreds of thousands of views, she’s incredibly effective, enthusiastic, and fully dedicated to the cause of clean water.

You’ll regularly see this lady paddleboarding on a local waterway or hiking a trail.

The first time I came to her house though, my eyes popped wide. Tall stands of black-eyed susans and milkweed waved in the wind. While the majority of the neighborhood has lawns prominently featured out front, native plants stood front and center at Angie’s house – a veritable prairie.

No lawns out front here – just an oasis for native insects and wildlife.

Angie is always looking to forward the cause of native plants to the many people she talks to, and her yard is a testament to that. I can’t really blame her, though – native plants are kinda amazing. Given that they have evolved and adapted to our local climate, they provide important habitat for local wildlife (including those birds and pollinators that we hear often about) and increase biodiversity. Their long root systems (feet vs the inches that grass roots have) mean they require a lot less water and no fertilizer. They just make sense as sustainable and cost-effective landscaping.

Yet, lawn is still king when it comes to people’s perceptions of a ‘proper yard.’ With Angie converting a large part of her yard to native plants, it creates ‘feelings’ for some folks for sure. Still, she has some great stories and perspective to share, and she’s inspired me to think more ‘outside the box’ when it comes to my own native plant journey.

Angie is going to be leading a Planting for Pollinators webinar on March 2nd from 6 pm – 7:30.

Paul Swanson – Forest Guru

Paul is the District Manager for the Pine Soil and Water Conservation District. While he is completely knowledgeable across landscapes, in my first conversation with him, his ‘first love’ became apparent – he loves woodlands and forests. Ask him a forest question, prepare for an amazing torrent of information to come forth. My notebook when I walk away from Paul is always full of fun tidbits and forest facts.

For example: Did you know that red pine needles actually make soil more acidic? Pine needles have a high amount of acidic compounds, such as tannins and lignin. When these needles decompose on the soil surface, they release these compounds into the soil, causing the pH level to decrease. Such soil not only will help promote the success of red pine seedlings in the future, but it also promotes the germination and growth of other fire-dependent plant species.

Nature is so cool.

Paul = bottomless well of knowledge

Paul invited me up to his house just outside of Moose Lake last fall to see the prairie restoration and red pine woodland that he and his partner Bryan have been working on on their land. He walked me through how they’ve re-introduced fire into the landscape, been managing invasive species, and very much enjoying all of the wildlife that the restorations have encouraged. He strongly feels that when asking people to consider land management practices, it’s important to have personal experience to back it up.

Paul will be the featured speaker at Tap into your forest’s potential: How great land management brews great beer next Thursday from 5-7 pm at Three Twenty Brewing Company in Pine City. Beer, forests, and water quality – it’s going to be amazing.

Jennifer Hahn – Soil Health Goddess

I am a rock nerd. One of my husband’s favorite stories is that while on a vacation in Ireland, I spent more time looking at rock outcrops then the many amazing views. Guilty as charged.

Thus, when I first meet Jenn at a site visit in a farmer’s field and saw her immediately dig into the ground to see what was going on with the soil, I knew we would get along just fine. #nerdsunite

Jennifer Hahn knows good soil.

Jenn is the agronomist for our Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership and is an Extension Educator for the University of Minnesota. She works with our agricultural producers basin-wide to adopt farming and land management practices to improve water quality and conserve soil resources. But at her core, she’s a soil scientist and loves speaking about soil and building soil health.

I have learned so much from her, and in watching our farmers interact with her, they are soaking up her knowledge as well. Who wouldn’t? Check out this video of her describing what makes a healthy soil.

Who knew microbes would be so fascinating? Just watch out for that soil knife.

Jenn grew up on a farm – her father and brother currently farm about 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans in northern Chisago County. Over the years, Jenn and her brother have worked on their father to encourage him to move toward conservation tillage practices like vertical till (you can learn more in my previous blog post here) and over this last year, planting cover crops. While conventional tillage may create a lovely seedbed to plant into, it absolutely destroys soil structure and microbe communities (Jenn likens it to having a tornado sweep through your community twice a year). Reducing tillage helps keeps that soil intact, functioning, and healthy, which translates into less soil erosion, more water infiltration, less fertilizer use, and healthier crops. Bing bang boom.

You can catch Jenn speaking about soils at the Pine and Isanti Counties Corn and Soybean Conference on March 2nd.

Ooh! And there’s one more March 2nd event to consider and check out! Our dedicated partners at the Comfort Lake-Forest Lake Watershed District (CLFLWD) are partnering with the Hardwood Creek Branch Library to put on a program about their water monitoring program that helps keep tabs on lake health trends. I had the opportunity last fall to join Jessica Lindemyer, outreach coordinator for CLFLWD, to talk to folks at their Arts in the Park booth about macroinvertebrates, using specimens we found in Forest Lake (read this blog post to learn more about it). Bottom line, if you’ve ever wondered about those official looking folks out there collecting water samples and why they are doing it, this is an excellent primer and opportunity to ask questions.

My girls helping collect macroinvertebrates in Forest Lake.

Have fun out there!