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Duluth native Howard Vincent hunts pheasants in Pine County earlier this month. Vincent is president and CEO of Pheasants Forever. Formed in 1982, the nonprofit conservation organization and its quail conservation division, Quail Forever, have nearly 150,000 members. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Duluth native Howard Vincent steers Pheasants Forever

GRASSTON, Minn. — Our mid-December pheasant hunt was over before it started, we just didn't know it until after our boots filled with snow and swamp water.

At one point, Jared Wiklund, the media coordinator for Pheasants Forever, the national upland bird conservation group, simply disappeared from view, like a trap door opened in the snow and swallowed him up. In reality the thin ice beneath his feet gave way and he sunk into the cattail swamp up to his waist.

The wind was blowing hard and cold out of the north. There was nearly 2 feet of snow on the level, and drifts in places were thigh-high. The dogs gave no hint that there were any pheasants nearby. And it was painfully clear after an hour of this that Mother Nature's conditions were too much for us to overcome.

“I think all our pheasants are across the road in that standing corn, and we can’t hunt there,’’ said Kenny Reed, a Pheasants Forever member who owns the Pine County farmland where we were hunting.

Yet, through all our misfortune, Howard Vincent was smiling.

“It’s still a beautiful day to be out,” Vincent said. ”The sun’s out. The dogs are having fun.”

That’s just the kind of positive outlook that’s served Vincent well in his role at national president and chief executive officer of Pheasants Forever. January will mark the 20th anniversary of Vincent, a Duluth native, leading the group’s seemingly uphill battle to save unplowed grasslands across the nation’s farm belt, to save places for wildlife to nest and live — from pheasants and quail to deer, bees and butterflies — amid the sea of corn and soybeans and wheat. It's a tough row to hoe in a political climate that often favors increased production and extraction over conservation.

Pheasants Forever was conceived in 1982 by a group of Minnesota hunters alarmed over the rapid loss of grassland habitat in the Upper Midwest. They were also alarmed how that loss of habitat lead to a decline in wildlife populations, especially upland birds. They hoped to emulate the efforts of Ducks Unlimited, the wetland habitat conservation group formed in the 1930s, by doing similar work for upland habit.

It was a slow start. Vincent took the helm in 2000 when the group’s budget was just $1 million annually. Even after 20 years, in 2002, Pheasants Forever had only 20 employees.

Now, 37 years in, the organization handles nearly $100 million annually and has more than 400 employees, the majority of whom are biologists who connect farmers with myriad government soil, water and wildlife conservation programs. Those programs essentially pay producers not to produce crops on some of their land.

But, as Vincent will tell you, just because there's no corn on it doesn’t mean that land is idle. Covered in grasses, forbs, flowers and other cover crops, the conservation land becomes a bastion for birds and wildlife, a sponge to slow water and reduce flooding, a sink for carbon sequestration (growing plants absorb carbon, plowed soil releases it) and a filter to help keep groundwater clean.

In 2018, Pheasants Forever (including its Quail Forever division that started in 2005) completed 13,608 wildlife habitat projects and worked with nearly 30,000 landowners to enter conservation programs. That effort helped establish more than 1 million acres of habitat on those farms. The Pheasants Forever budget hit $97 million — from federal and state grants, donations, gifts, memberships and sales — with $96.4 million going directly to the nonprofit’s missions, a 90% efficiency rating.

Known as the “habitat organization,’’ Pheasants Forever has played a major role in raising money and then buying land that is later handed over to state and federal wildlife agencies to become public wildlife management areas and waterfowl production areas — more than 200,000 acres so far permanently protected and not just good habitat but also open to the public for hunting. But over the past two decades, Vincent has been pushing the group to focus more on private farmland, which comprises more than 90% of pheasant and quail regions of the nation.

“Something like 80% of wildlife in the U.S. is on private land,’’ Vincent reminds people. “When we made the commitment to focus more on private land conservation, that’s when we started to have a real impact.”

The group's local chapters focus on fundraising for local land acquisition and on encouraging the hunter-conservationist tradition that has dwindled as the nation has become more urban and less connected to the land. Those efforts include sponsoring high school trap shooting teams, mentored hunts for newcomers and other youth activities.

“We aren’t going to save conservation’s future with 62-year-old guys,’’ Vincent said, framing himself as the typical Pheasants Forever member who will be “aging out’’ of hunting in coming years. “We have to be relevant to a broader constituency. We need to get more people excited about conservation, especially millennials.”

A Duluth kid

Vincent, 63, at first came to the nonprofit as a volunteer in 1984 when it had just 12 chapters. An accountant by trade, he knew how to get the organization's ledgers in order. Two years later, in 1987, he left his job in the Minneapolis office of a prestigious accounting firm to become Pheasants Forever’s first full-time director of finance. In 2000, he took over as president and CEO. Now there are 742 chapters in 40 states.

It’s not a career he would have even dreamed of when he was growing up in Duluth.

“I grew up in the projects on top of Duluth’s hillside, the last of 11 kids,’’ Vincent said of his youth in the Harbor View Homes neighborhood above Mesaba Avenue. “I didn't know it then, but we were poor. We didn’t have a car. ... My dad rode the bus to his job at Clyde Iron, back when they made stuff out of iron there.”

Vincent graduated from Central High School in 1975. He has fond memories of snaring rabbits in the fields between Harbor View and the school and of hunting “partridge” not much farther away.

“I’d usually get a grouse or two,’’ he said. “Somebody was feeding pheasants back in there but I could never get close to that flock before they'd flush.”

Vincent’s favorite hunting memories from his youth are of camping out in the Superior National Forest, somewhere well north of Island Lake, with just a tarp for a tent and the family’s mutt for his hunting dog, sometimes just him and his parents.

“Being the last child I got to have a little time with them, and that was great. We’d get dropped off, build some sort of lean-to with the tarp, and sometimes spend a week up there,’’ Vincent said. “We never got a lot of grouse walking those old logging roads. If we got one or two a day that was good.”

Vincent didn’t know it then, but the seeds of a conservationist had been planted.

“I did a lot of hunting in college, and after, but I never thought of any kind of career in this,’’ he said, noting he was in his 20s when he shot his first pheasant and 50s before he shot his first quail.

Vincent graduated from UMD in 1979, married Wendy Soderberg of Duluth and headed into a career path aimed at bean counting. But the longer Vincent stayed with Pheasants Forever, the more the call of conservation drew him in.

“The plan was to go in there for a couple of years, get it going on the right track (financially) and then move on,’’ he said. “But the longer I stayed, the more I saw the passion of the people around me, they were just so dedicated to the cause. I guess it sunk in. I started to believe in the mission.”

It wasn’t just a job anymore, Vincent said — it was his passion.

“I’ve got the single best job on the planet,’’ he said.

On the cusp of change, for the better

The federal Conservation Reserve Program began in 1985. It’s no coincidence that when it peaked in 1996 at nearly 40 million acres nationally, pheasant numbers exploded across the nation's farm belt. Deer, turkey and other wildlife thrived as well.

Buts as the price of corn went up, and as many farmers pulled out of the program to reap the windfall, CRP dropped to just 24 million acres by 2012. Over just a few years, nearly 16 million acres of habitat — 25,000 square miles, an area larger than West Virginia — were lost. Deer, turkey and pheasant numbers began a dramatic decline across much of the nation’s farm country.

But Vincent, always the optimist, insists we are on the cusp of a revival in farmland conservation, with his group on the leading edge at conference tables in Washington and at kitchen tables on farms across the Heartland. CRP acres, funded by Congress’ massive farm bill every few years, moved back up to 27 million in 2018 as some farmers are starting to see that some of their acres just don’t make financial sense to plant in crops.

Instead, they can save on fuel and fertilizer and get paid by the federal government to stop tilling that land, plant grasses or cover crops and then sit back and watch the flowers bloom. In some cases the state will pay them a little more to let hunters walk on the CRP land.

CRP now is funded at 29 million acres under the 2018 farm bill. That’s better, but still not enough, Vincent said.

“We believe there’s demand for 40 million acres’’ of CRP, he said. “Farmers need a viable financial opportunity out of an acre (of their land) and we think we can give it to them, if the funding is there.”

Vincent also is watching as corporate agriculture — from tractor giant John Deere to food goliath Land O'Lakes, the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, Coca-Cola and even McDonald’s restaurants all move to demand sustainability from their producers' farming practices.

The wheat grown to make all Goldfish crackers, Vincent noted, now must come from farms that practice sustainable agriculture. That’s going to help pheasants.

“What they call sustainability, we call conservation,’’ Vincent said with his ever-present smile that conveys his boundless enthusiasm. “We aren’t saying every acre of farm should be in conservation. But we are saying we think there’s room for conservation on every farm.”

Vincent will be back in Duluth for Christmas to visit friends and family. While he raised his family in the Twin Cities, Vincent said he and his wife are considering retiring back in Duluth. Their son, Ian, attended Minnesota Duluth and now works at Duluth’s Apex business development group.

“Duluth is still home for us,’’ Vincent noted. “Even if it’s not prime pheasant country.”

Pheasants Forever at a glance

  • Founded: 1982 in St. Paul.
  • Members: 137,000.
  • Chapters: 752 in 40 states.
  • Budget: Approaching $100 million in 2019.
  • Habitat conserved: More than 18 million acres.
  • Land purchased for habitat and permanent public hunting: 201,159 acres.
  • Unique: All money raised by local chapter fundraising efforts stays with the local chapter to spend.
  • Dues: National organization is funded by annual $35 membership fee from each member, government grants, corporate donations, advertising, sales and other projects.
  • Ranked highly: By charity/nonprofit watchdog groups, with more than 90% of funds going to core-mission projects.
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