Profiles in Conservation

Social connections, shared interests help create Forest Legacy project in Minnesota

A socially inspired, retired biologist recently used his passion for the natural world and personal connections to help conserve a large swath of forest land in southern Minnesota.

By Glenn Rosenholm

Gary Wagenbach and his wife, Linda, have owned and lived on a scenic patch of land in southern Minnesota since 1987. Over the years, they have added more land to their Minnesota holdings, and today own two roughly rectangular adjacent parcels totaling about 80 acres in Rice County, south of the Twin Cities. Another 40 acres that Wagenbach owns today in Wisconsin was a gift from his mother around 1998.

“About two-thirds to three-fourths of our land in Minnesota is forested,” he said. “It’s mostly rolling hills, some of them very steep sided. The floor of the valley where we live has lots of vegetation. It’s a large valley that goes on for several miles.”

Their property includes two streams in the floor of the valley, along with some ancient glacial features. He said much of their land is a combination of forest, grassland, and savanna. They comprise a nice patchwork of forests and fields that provide suitable habitat for a variety of flora and fauna.

“It’s a very interesting place,” he added.

The trees on his property are all native hardwoods, including various oaks, black walnut, and maples (sugar, boxelder, red, and silver), he said.

“It’s all deciduous, with a few red cedar here and there. We also have American elm, cottonwood, aspen, and bitternut hickory, a few mulberry, lots of black willows and other willows, along with invasive buckthorn, plus ash trees.” About 1–2 percent of their trees are ash.

They’ve been gradually improving their land the entire time they’ve owned it, nearly 30 years, he said.

“My goal is habitat enhancement and reforestation of old [agricultural] fields, part of the Forest Legacy agenda applied to our property. This part of Minnesota has mixed prairie and oak savanna, plus hardwood forest remnants. [Here] we think about historic land cover, including forests and grasslands.”

“The forest is broken down into heavy timber stands. Southern Minnesota and North Woods include maple basswood,” he added. “It’s a short label for the species that are mixed in. Historically, our area has larger trees that loggers go for.”

The View From There

Wagenbach shared his daily view of the world around him.

“As I look out my window, I can see Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park, said to be the largest remnant of ‘Big Woods’ forest in Minnesota. It’s about a mile away. About a half mile away is the Valley Grove Historical Site. … a quarter mile away I see a prairie restoration, an old [agricultural] field, planted in 1996 with native grass. I can see a wetland down below that. Then there’s a ridge in the center of the valley with an oak savanna community on it. That ridge has never been plowed and remains an oak savanna remnant, according to Minnesota DNR” (Department of Natural Resources).

“We started converting corn and soybean fields into restoration prairies of native grasses and forests.  About 10 years later, around 2006, we started our forest restoration effort. Following conversion of farm land to native grasses, we started a tree planting project on land that was formerly farmed,” he said.

“We have a young forest of about 20,000 trees or more,” he said. “The softwoods and hardwoods are growing nicely. The response of the animals has been remarkable. ‘If we build it, they will come.’ That’s what happened with wildlife in our forest—woodcock, ruffed grouse, wild turkey and mink, coyotes, and signs (a paw print) of a cougar.”

“It’s something I deeply care about,” he said. “Part of my being is very connected to this land that we live on. I think about it every day. We love to share access with my friends for walking, hunting, birdwatching, and other nondestructive uses.” 

He likes animals and plants so much that he has spent much of his life learning as much as he could about them. He had a double major for baccalaureate of science degrees in biology and chemistry. He went on to receive a master’s degree in zoology, and later, a Ph.D. in zoology. He has even done postdoctoral work at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts.

Being a zoologist, Wagenbach has a rare appreciation for animals and an extensive knowledge about what it takes to attract them and to keep them happy in their natural habitat. For instance, some animals require only small areas to make their homes. Other, larger animals, especially predators, often require many acres of habitat for roaming.

But while the Wagenbachs’ 80 acres in Minnesota is a good chunk of land, it’s not nearly as extensive as he would have liked.

A Community of Land Managers

A self-described “very connected guy,” Wagenbach has been involved with the Farm Service Agency-administered Conservation Reserve Program for a number of years. Landowners involved in the program agree to take environmentally sensitive lands out of agricultural production for 10–15 years, in return for rental payments, according to the Federal program. The landowners also agree to plant species that will improve environmental health and quality.

“Because we utilize the Conservation Reserve Program, I’m in a 10-year program to manage the land,” he said. “That gives me about $3,300 a year to help pay expenses of managing the land.”

“The organizations I’m involved with, almost all of them have to do with land care,” he added. “I’m on three different boards—two of them are nonprofits, and one is a unit of government.”

He once even held a coffee social event at his house to promote a proposed Forest Legacy project. The Forest Legacy Program conserves “working forests” that protect water quality and provide habitat and forest products. It also provides opportunities for recreation and other public benefits, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

“The starting point for that was a conversation I had with Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Forester Richard “Dick” Peterson. In the 1980s and 1990s there were gatherings in our area under the title of ‘Big Woods Project.’ At that time the conversation involved thinking about a corridor linking forest plots. That initial conversation ended, but it primed the pump for a potential Forest Legacy project.”

“When the Legacy project came along Peterson became the Forest Legacy Program leader in the State of Minnesota, and he wanted us to imagine the possibilities of a [Nerstrand Woods] Forest Legacy project in our area. I said to Dick, there are several forest landowners in my own neighborhood.”

And so Wagenbach hosted a 90-minute-long gathering one morning at his home to discuss the potential conservation project.

“Part of the drive is the idea of having contiguous linked properties. That was the first layer. The second layer is all about the people and the community. It helped the common good in our community,” he said.

“Several people came that morning, and Dick had an informal talk with them. Everyone who attended signed up for the program. It enhances wildlife to have larger plots of connected forest, among other benefits.”

He added, “That meeting in the kitchen was the late 1990s. Coffee and sweets, on a Saturday. About 4–5 people showed up, and later other people joined the project.”

The total value of existing easements in the immediate area is about
$2.7 million and includes hundreds of acres, he added.

Wagenbach said he was totally surprised by the outcome. People supported the proposed project for a variety of motivations, including his own concerns for wildlife.

“Two are large-acreage farmers. To another it represented cash incentives, and the same for others who earn their living in nonfarming ways. There was a variety of interests and personal backgrounds among the mix of interested landowners,” he added.

“Our personal goal was and is to preserve the land through a conservation easement,” he said. “The easement is in perpetuity. We had to change the title of the land under easement so no one could build on the property.”

Wagenbach’s landholdings fit nicely with and complement his lifelong personal interest in nature, which he said has been deeply inspired by the conservationist Aldo Leopold. He was also inspired by Herman Olson from Wisconsin, a member of the U.S. Forest Service. Olson retired in the sixties and started a restoration project in Wisconsin.

“It’s Not for Everybody”

He said he has greatly enjoyed owning and managing his land over the years. He would not recommend that everyone own land, however, as they are not all well suited for it.

“People vary so much in their interests and capacities. I sometimes recommend it as an option to consider, with some caveats recommended early in the conversation. There are many technical issues to managing land—invasive species, knowing your plants, wildfire as a management tool, managed burns to control shrubby trees, and others. The scale of the work and the working knowledge are considerable.”

“It’s not for everybody,” he added.

“My neighbors—we learn from each other. We share our knowledge. When I talk with my neighbors we share our understandings and management challenges. We can problem-solve about what management techniques to apply, for [invasive] buckthorn, for example. It’s just an informal group, neighborly conversation.”

Being retired now, Wagenbach tries to stay busy each day, and he enjoys having more time to spend outdoors on his land, alone and with others.

At age 76 he still served on three boards, until January 2017.

“I’m easing up on my commitments,” he added.  “I still do some part-time teaching. I teach teachers about science education and provide some teacher training, currently in Myanmar (Burma). I retired in 2008 from teaching at Carleton College in Minnesota, where I taught biology and in the environmental studies program for 39 years.”

The Wagenbachs also like to read at home when they get the time.

“I read mostly nonfictional works such as earth science and natural history,” he said. “My wife is the one who reads more novels in our family.”

Of his lifestyle he said, “I like being on the land, walking it. It’s deeply satisfying. I take people on walking and hayride tours. Sitting quietly under my oak trees, watching the sunset, a deep satisfaction comes from owning the land, a deep resonance.”

Read about the Nerstrand Woods Forest Legacy tract on the Northeastern Area’s Web site.

Photos are courtesy of U.S. Forest Service/Dennis McDougall, unless otherwise indicated.

Share this: