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Published August 14, 2010, 07:13 AM

Minn. nature conservancy preserves the prairie

GLYNDON, Minn. — Jim Landfield chatted nostalgically as he stepped carefully between cow pies and puddles of rainwater on pastureland that had been in his family for almost a century.

By: By Patrick Springer , Forum Communications Co. , The Jamestown Sun

GLYNDON, Minn. — Jim Landfield chatted nostalgically as he stepped carefully between cow pies and puddles of rainwater on pastureland that had been in his family for almost a century.

“We had cattle here for years,” he said Friday, as he gave a walking tour of the property. “All Angus all the time.”

Not much changed in that near century of ownership by the Goldberg and Landfield families. It remains 470 acres of native prairie, most of it never turned by a plow.

Earlier this month, Landfield sold the pastureland, in Clay County’s Spring Prairie Township, to The Nature Conservancy for preservation as native prairie — one remnant of what adds up to just 1 percent of the grassland that once covered Minnesota.

The tract became the first property acquired through the Conservancy’s Minnesota Prairie Recovery Project, with funding from Minnesota’s Outdoor Heritage Fund.

“We have far too little prairie left in the state to lose any more,” said Peggy Ladner, director of The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota. “Grasslands help preserve our water quality and quantity, provide wildlife habitat, and serve as wide-open spaces that we and future generations can enjoy.”

Only about 220,000 acres remain, according to the Minnesota County Biological Survey, and conservationists say about half of the remaining prairies are unprotected and at risk of being lost to development.

The land will remain open to the public for outdoor recreation, including hiking, birding and, by permit, hunting.

“I was thrilled to hear it will have public access,” said Landfield, who grew up in Fargo but now lives in Virginia, where he works as a financial consultant.

Although his family held title to the land for decades, they really were caretakers and not true owners, he said.

“All this wealth and all that we have is lent to us,” he said. “We’re custodians of it. And that’s all. It’s just that simple. It’s a privilege to ‘own it,’ as we call it, but it’s really not ours.”

The Landfield tract, northeast of Glyndon, is strategically located in between two valuable native prairie preserves, The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie Scientific and Natural Area to the south and Felton Prairie Scientific and Natural Area to the north.

The diverse tract blends wet prairie, sedge meadow and marsh habitats, among others — home to abundant waterfowl and other avian species, including the rare nesting marbled godwit and nesting Wilson’s snipe.

“It’s a fantastic place for birding,” said Rhett Johnson, a land steward for The Nature Conservancy, who accompanied Landfield for Friday’s walk through the property. “In the spring it’s really incredible. All the life there.”

Much of Landfield’s early life was spent walking the pasture that his grandfather acquired early in the 1900s. It remains a sort of museum to his childhood.

“Are you going to do anything to that corral?” he asked Johnson, pointing to a weathered corral a few hundred yards away.

“We’re going to keep it for grazing,” Johnson answered.

“Oh, good,” Landfield said, reassured that things won’t be changing too much under the new owners. “We used to come out here all the time and I’ll miss it.”

Grazing, in fact, is an important part of managing a native grassland, Johnson went on to explain.

Cattle take the place of the abundant buffalo and elk that once dominated the grazing species of the plains and prairies.

“Grazing and fire at certain intervals are very beneficial to grasslands,” Johnson said.

Without the helpful disturbances of grazing and fire, grasslands gradually can evolve into woodlands because brush and other woody plant species can proliferate if unchecked.

Fortunately, Johnson added, the 470 acres are mostly free of invasive species. Crews are spraying and whacking weed heads to control their spread.

As Johnson and Landfield were about to walk over to the corral, Landfield mused about how wet the fields were from recent heavy rains. Even on the high ground, if you weren’t careful, you could bog a tractor in the mud.

“Expletive deleted,” he said, giving a sanitized version of the response getting stuck would elicit. “It’s a gorgeous piece of property. There’s no way else to describe it.”

He had a few words of advice to hikers or bird watchers who want to roam the ground: Bring bug spray. Mosquitoes and gnats are among the abundant wildlife drawn to the native wet prairie.

Patrick Springer is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-

Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.