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Published December 19, 2011, 02:50 PM

COVER STORY: A valuable resource

Little-known Plant Materials Center plays a big role in area conservation

By: Jonathan Knutson,

BISMARCK, N.D. — On a tree-lined tract a stone’s throw from the Bismarck (N.D.) Municipal Airport, a low-profile organization is playing a key role in area conservation efforts.

If you’re interested in conservation and live in North Dakota, South Dakota, western Minnesota or eastern Montana, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Plant Materials Center probably can help.

The Bismarck center already has helped countless area residents. Drive around the region, and you’ll find its grasses and legumes in pastures, its trees in shelterbelts and its plants along shorelines. It also has a hand in testing seed mixes for land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

“We provide plants solutions to conservation problems versus engineering solutions — cement and rock and dirt,” says Wayne Duckwitz, manager of the Bismarck center. “We can assist with the technical expertise and plant varieties you need.”

NRCS field offices work with local producers to identify conservation concerns in a particular area. The Plant Materials Center, in turn, helps develop solutions to those concerns.

Because it works primarily with NRCS field offices, and rarely has direct contact with the public, the Bismarck center is a “well-kept secret,” Duckwitz says.

“The Bismarck PMC is a key component to local resource conservation in the Northern Plains,” says North Dakota State Conservationist Mary Podoll.

Through its research and testing, the Bismarck center — part of a nationwide network of 27 such centers —has released more than 40 plant varieties.

The list includes the popular Midwest Manchurian crab apple. The Bismarck center supplies “the core breeding stock” to nurseries, which grow the plants that later are planted in shelterbelts, Duckwitz says.

Other plants on the list include needlegrass, switchgrass, wheatgrass, prairie clover, poplar and lilac.

The Bismarck center handles only plants used for conservation. It doesn’t work with ornamental plants.

Off-site research, too

The testing process begins with planting seeds and plants at the Bismarck center.

If initial results are promising, testing broadens to more sites across the region. That gives a better idea of how the plant fares in different soils and with varying rainfall.

The second phase of testing typically is conducted in cooperation with universities and soil conservation districts.

Duckwitz is one of seven employees of the Bismarck center. It also has an agronomist, forester, secretary and three biological technicians. Because the staff is small, the center frequently partners with university researchers and other experts.

If the second-stage test results also are promising, testing is widened again to field plantings on private lands. Favorable results in the third stage of testing could lead the plant material to be released for commercial use.

It’s a long process. Typically, a plant is first available for commercial use 10 to 20 years after testing begins.

Researchers don’t want to proceed too quickly.

“Push too fast, and you leave some area unexplored,” Duckwitz says.

But waiting to reach judgment until the plant dies, which could take as long as 50 years, isn’t feasible, either.

“After 10 to 20 years, you have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to perform,” he says.

Hackberry release

Prairie Harvest hackberry illustrates how the Bismarck center works.

Green ash, used widely in shelterbelts, is threatened by the emerald ash borer. Adding diversity is increasingly important, and the NRCS is promoting hackberry as a good alternative to green ash.

The NRCS has been interested in hackberry for many years. It’s collected hackberry seed from a number of sources, including two mature trees close to the Red Lake River near Fisher, Minn. Hackberry grows best in rich, moist soil along streams on or floodplains.

The Red Lake River hackberry seed, known as Prairie Harvest, was collected in 1982 and tested for more than 18 years. The Prairie Harvest test trees held up well, and, in spring, Prairie Harvest seedlings became available from conservation nurseries.

The trees are targeted primarily for recommended soils in North Dakota and the northern half of Minnesota.

A little history

The Bismarck center’s roots date back to the 1930s. Congress passed the Soil Erosion Act in 1933, and the newly created Soil Erosion Service established tree and grass nurseries in 1934 in the Bismarck area.

In 1935, the Soil Erosion Service was transferred to a new agency known as the Soil Conservation Service. In 1937, the SCS bought land for a new nursery between Bismarck and Mandan, N.D., Bismarck’s sister city. The site was on a floodplain between the Missouri and Heart rivers, so flooding was an occasional problem.

In 1953, the SCS nursery was moved to the former Fort Lincoln Military Post. The next year, the SCS nursery was discontinued and the Plant Materials Center was created.

Today, the Plant Materials Center operates through an agreement between the NRCS and the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts.

The former promotes the widespread application of sound and practical soil and water conservation practices in the state. The latter works to ensure that private lands are conserved, restored and more resilient to environmental challenges.

Since 1954, the Bismarck center has been co-located with Lincoln-Oakes Nurseries, which is owned and operated by the state Association of Soil Conservation Districts.

Of the 360 acres at the site, Lincoln-Oakes uses 300 and the Bismarck center 60 acres.

Shelterbelts, hayland

Once, shelterbelts were a key component of area conservation efforts. By all accounts, the number of new shelterbelts being planted has dropped sharply in recent years, though nobody has a good handle on the exact number.

But interest in other conservation practices has grown, Duckwitz says.

One example: Some ag producers who once planted straight alfalfa on hay fields are switching to a blend of alfalfa and grass. Mixing in grass can help the field hold up better to frost.

One thing hasn’t changed in area conservation, Duckwitz says. At the Plant Materials Center, “We’re here to help.”

Visitors are welcome to tour the Bismarck center, which is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call in advance to make sure that a staff member will be available. The number is 701-250-4330.

More information on the NRCS and its conservation programs can be found at NRCS field offices or