VISITORS AT THE VETERANS WILDLIFE Management Area Dedication last Wednesday took a wagon tour of the land, with Welby Smith pointing out areas of the landscpe. (Photos by Ken Francis.)

New wildlife area honors veterans

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Staff Writer
Ken Francis
About 120 people from all over Central Minnesota gathered in a field of prairie grass in Clearwater Twp. last Wednesday evening to commemorate a special event.
It was the dedication of the new 604-acre Minne-sota Veterans State Wild-life Management Area (WMA).
The land is located 3.5 miles south of I-94 on both sides of Hwy. 24. About 440 acres are located in Clearwater Twp. The remainder is in Stearns County. The property is divided by the Clearwater River and includes native prairie, wetlands and oak woods.
A stone monument honoring Minnesota veterans stands near the parking area on the east side of Hwy. 24.
Last November, Eran Sandquist of Pheasants Forever approached the Clearwater Town Board about purchasing the property from the Smith family to eventually turn it over to the DNR as a Wildlife Management Area.
Since that time, Pheasants Forever and a number of other organizations and individuals collaborated to make the transition from private land to a wildlife area a reality.
Last Wednesday, Fred Bengston, area manager for the DNR, thanked those responsible for contributing to the cause.
“Wildlife area acquisition is one of the most important things we do,” he said. “Thanks to all the partnerships, all the donors and people involved - businesses and conservation groups.”
Bengston said the new Veterans WMA would not exist without the state’s Legacy Fund, which funds  land conservation.
“Ten years ago I wouldn’t have believed I’d be  standing here on this piece of property. Over 600 acres of state wildlife area,” he said. “Every one of you contributed. The Legacy Fund is state sales tax-driven and this is the result of all that effort.”
A number of people spoke during the commemoration ceremony, including Commissioner Larry Shelitto of the MN Dept. of Veteran Affairs, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, Mark Johnson, Executive Director of MN Deer Hunters Association, Ryan Bronson of Federal Premium Ammunition  and Tom Glines of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
“I’ve got seven grandchildren and I certainly want to have places for them to recreate,” he said. “The hunter is always under attack. We need to preserve  places for them to hunt. One of the reasons people quit hunting is they don’t have a place to go.”
But it wasn’t all about hunting. Sandquist said when he spoke with the Smith family, it was clear they wanted to leave a legacy for all Minnesotans to enjoy. That’s why they wanted the land to be preserved.
“They definitely had done their research and had very well thought-out questions,” he said. “It was very evident the connection they had to this land and the legacy they wanted to leave. They wanted to make sure this land was going to be in just as good hands as it has been in their hands for the last century- plus.”
Then it was the Smith family’s time to speak, and Welby Smith, one of three siblings who owned the land, addressed the crowd.
“For over 150 years, the stewards of this land has been the Smith family. The first Smith arrived in 1862 with a land grant signed by Abraham Lincoln, which we still have,” he said. “For five generations, the Smiths have cared for this land. The most recent generation has been determined to restore the land to as close to a natural condition as possible. We worked over 20 years on restoration and we had one ambition, that the land in the end would be under long-term conservation ownership and be accessible to the people of Minnesota.”
Joe Duggan, VP of Corporate Relations for Pheasants Forever, said the property is as good an example of native restoration as anyone could recall.
“This is one of the finest restorations of native prairie you can find,” he said. “The family did an immense amount of work. They did a great job.” 
After the ceremony, visitors were invited to take a wagon tour of the property. Welby Smith rode along to point out some of the natural features of the land.
The site will provide a place for people to hunt and enjoy nature. It will be open to veterans and the general public.
 

photos


Mike Zdychnec, Executive Program Director for Healthcare Management at MN School of Business. (Photo by Ken Francis.)

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