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Conservation Conversations: Discussion with Crystal Mathisrud from the Hubbard County Soil and Water Conservation District

Minnesota Forest and Stars
Minnesota forest and stars

This interview is one in a series of conservation conversations aired monthly on KAXE/KBXE. This month's Conservation Conversation concerned the cooperation of community organizations: namely, how the Northern Waters Land Trust works alongside county soil and water conservation districts (SWCD) to protect Northern Minnesota's valuable natural resources. Crystal Mathisrud, the district manager of the Hubbard County soil and water conservation district, joins Heidi Holtan, John Latimer, and John Sumption (from the Northern Waters Land Trust). Annie Knight, a series regular, is on maternity leave. (Congratulations, Annie and 'super dad' Taylor!)

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Heidi: Good morning! Thanks for being here.

John S.: Good morning, John and Heidi! Today our guest is Crystal Mathisrud. She's the district manager for the Hubbard County soil and water conservation district (SWCD). Crystal tells me that she leverages her background in science, writing, and communications to support local teams who are skilled at identifying and taking actions toward improving and protecting land and water resources while also considering the values, concerns, and vision of our communities. So, a very noble cause! Crystal, welcome to the show. Why don't you start by telling us about the role of the Hubbard SWCD in your area?

Crystal: Thank you for having me on today, John, Heidi, and John! It's exciting to be on and to talk about what we do. Since starting this role, I've learned that not many people know about the SWCD or that there is one in every county in Minnesota (88 total). We are a local branch of state government, and our role is to help landowners and our community take actions for land and water to protect our water quality, our water quantity, our soil health, our forest health, and to protect wildlife and diversity. We don't always have as much funding for the wildlife portion, but we currently have quite a bit of funding for water quality work.

Another important point is that we have no taxing authority, so we are supported mainly by grants. Because of that, Hubbard County SWCD has a different focus at different points in time: we're doing the work according to the funding that we get and the capacity we've built in-house. Hubbard County SWCD has a pretty strong capacity to address forest resources, we're building our capacity for agricultural resources, and we have a high capacity for water quality and shoreland resources. The state also says that we are protecting and managing these resources for the conservation value and economic stability of our local communities.

John S.: Crystal, could you run through a list of the projects you're working on right now?

Crystal: Absolutely. At any point in time, we have a lot of projects running. My technicians are responsible for doing things on the ground, and they're fantastic: Claire, Brandon, and Jake. So, big thanks to our great technicians! My role is primarily to seek funding, build partnerships, and communicate and report on all these things. Currently, we are doing three major watershed plans, which are comprehensive planning efforts that bring together local agencies and multiple WCDs to plan on a watershed scale. This is happening across the state, and we're partnering with local organizations for three major watersheds: the Leech Lake River, Crow Wing River, and Mississippi River Headwaters. These efforts are to control conveyance, storage, and pressure points across the whole watershed. We believe that by doing that, we will permanently ensure high water quality in Minnesota and downstream of our state.

So, those are the big projects. We're also doing a project with the Midwest Glacial Lakes Partnership and Bemidji State University to take action on shorelands to improve fish habitat in the Matrap, Gull, and Whitefish lake chains. We do regular free nitrate testing for wells. We have a 'smart irrigation practices' program with an irrigation scheduler, and we have funds for forest management plans right now. So, anyone interested in a forest management plan can call our office, and we can help set them up. We're also working on an interesting project with the Northern Waters Land Trust: we're scoping a carbon sequestration program for the state of Minnesota. It would be specific to the state of Minnesota and would look at converting marginal agricultural lands back to forest land. By planting new forests on those lands, we could take advantage of the water quality and carbon sequestration benefits. So, thank you, John, for getting that grant going! We're excited about how things are moving with our BSU intern and the collaborative work on that project.

Heidi: Can you tell us about long-term land conservation opportunities for land owners and the differences or similarities between your groups?

John S.: Well, Heidi, the Northern Waters Land Trust has a very specific assistance program. We work almost exclusively on conservation easements and fee title acquisitions of high-priority lands. We also do landowner education as it relates to those two topics.

Crystal: The scope for Hubbard SWCD (and other SWCDs) is a bit bigger. When we work with a landowner, we want to help them address all aspects of conservation: water conservation, forest conservation, agricultural conservation, and soil conservation on their land according to their vision. We also identify opportunities to protect the water and soil and build the soil. So, we do also have easement programs and long-term forest management cost-shares to help people get into the state programs for the sustainable forest incentive act and 2C programs. We really want to work with landowners on a more holistic basis to find out what is important to them and determine how we can take actions together that protect and enhance those natural resources and hopefully their economic stability as a family, a landowner, and community members.

I would add that our area has many different conservation easement programs. Frequently, we work on projects with landowners who are interested in an easement program, but the ones that the SWCD offers aren't the best fit for them. In that case, we call John or Annie or different programs in the DNR to determine if we can find a good fit for that landowner. The SWCD does outreach according to priority, and we try to take actions where they can have the most impact, but we also want to help everyone who comes into our office with what we have available for them.

Heidi: Crystal, you mentioned the carbon sequestration project. Can you tell us more about that, and give some details of how it works?

Crystal: Sure. As you know, carbon sequestration is a hot topic right now. We're looking at how fast climate change is happening, with higher temperatures and crazy storms (like last night's). One of the main ways we can reduce those impacts is by taking carbon out of the air and putting it into plant material or the ground. When you plant new trees, they start sequestering carbon right away. As the tree grows, it pulls carbon out of the air, brings it into the tree, and holds onto it. About 50% of the mass of a tree is carbon, and the rest is mostly water. So, if a tree is growing fast (such as when it's young), it pulls a lot of carbon out of the air very quickly. This is why it's helpful to reforest areas that are more suitable for a forest than agricultural land, especially areas that are low-producing agricultural lands.

Once a tree is grown, or after it dies or is harvested, the carbon is continually stored in the tree. So, even if the tree is made into cabinets for your house, carbon is still stored in those cabinets. One of the ways we can do a good job of sequestering carbon is by planting trees that grow fast and continuously managing them for long-term storage in durable products (such as cabinets). With this project, we are looking at how to ensure that we create a carbon sequestration program in Minnesota, and how do we advise the state legislature on what it would look like? We want the program to serve our landowners well, fit with our current conservation easements and practices that are already in place, and be impactful for carbon sequestration and water quality benefits (Minnesota has identified water quality benefits as a very high priority).

Currently, we have an intern working with many people in the field to gather existing information about these aspects with the goal of writing a white paper. The paper will include surveys of landowners and conservation administrators and will help direct and inform the development of a new carbon sequestration program exclusively for residents in Minnesota. The current programs in Minnesota for landowners are mostly deferral credit programs (nationwide programs where landowners can get a payment for not cutting their trees for several years). The issue with those deferral credit programs has to do with impact: since many of those people wouldn't be cutting their forest anyway, what are the programs providing additionality?

John L.: That sounds really interesting. What is on the schedule for the upcoming months and weeks? What programs do you have going on that would interest our listeners?

John S.: Well, John, our next event is a fisheries project presentation for the Association of Cass County Lakes: that'll be on June 24th at the Cass County land department office in Backus. We'll be talking about a property preservation project we did on Miller Bay on Leech Lake. Miller bay is a very critical habitat for muskie spawning. Doug Schultz (from DNR fisheries) and I will be presenting.

John L.: I remember talking about that! That sounds like a pretty exciting thing.

John S.: It is indeed. We're in the process of exporting that same kind of project onto several other lakes for different species of fish, but with the same idea: preserving the habitats around these lakes and preventing development that would negatively impact that fishery's habitat.

John L.: You know, fisheries are a big part of recreation in this state. Are you getting a lot of buy-in from Muskies Inc. and some other fisheries groups? Are they stepping up and coming along?

John S.: Yes, they've been staunch allies. They've been very supportive locally as members of local lake associations and as organizations. For instance, last month, we talked to George Selcke from Muskies Inc.: long answer short, they've been very, very supportive.

John L.: That's excellent. If there's a fishing guide out there or some other interested people, how would they get in touch with you?

John S.: They can access our website or contact us by phone at (218) 547-4510. We have a lot of good information. Crystal?

Crystal: We also have some fishing activities coming up. We've partnered with the Headwaters Science Center to provide some summer fishing activities for kids. So, if you'd like to participate in those programs, please stop by the Headwaters Science Center for some information, and they'll get you going with the program. We also have many well water nitrate clinics coming up: they are free clinics, and you can stop in at the Laporte Independence Celebration Days on July 2nd, 8 AM- 12 PM at the pavilion. Just run your water for about 30 seconds, then fill up a canning jar or another clean container and bring it in: we can test it right there for you! We'll also be doing nitrate testing at the Hubbard County Fair on July 15th and 16th from 11 AM to 4 PM. We do testing at our office in Park Rapids on the first Friday of every month, so there are plenty of opportunities. If you'd like to call our office to find out about any of those events or to schedule a visit to talk about any of our other programs, our number is (218) 732-0121.

Heidi: Thanks so much for your time today!

John S. and Crystal: Thank you!

Heidi Holtan has worked at KAXE/KBXE for over 20 years. She currently helms the Morning Show as News and Public Affairs Director. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North. In 2018 Heidi received the “Building Bridges in Media” award from the Islamic Resource Group for her work on KAXE/KBXE hosting conversations about anti-Muslim movements in rural Minnesota.
As a mail carrier in rural Grand Rapids, Minn., for 35 years, John Latimer put his own stamp on a career that delivered more than letters. Indeed, while driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily route, he passed the time by observing and recording seasonal changes in nature, learning everything he could about the area’s weather, plants and animals, and becoming the go-to guy who could answer customers’ questions about what they were seeing in the environment.
Sarah Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Sarah creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, Sarah enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).