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Congressman visits Oak Ridge WPA

Mike Reiter of The Friends of the St. Croix Wetland Management District explains the ducks on sticks program run jointly with the USFWS to U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI7). The program, which tours schools and libraries, has reached more than 15,000 people. (Photo by Tom Lindfors) 1 / 4
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A bald eagle flew overhead to mark the occasion as staff from the New Richmond office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) led an informational gathering at the newly constructed observation platform located at the west end of Oak Ridge Waterfowl Production Area (WPA) two miles southeast of Star Prairie.

“This observation platform is one of the recent projects resulting from a great public-private partnership coordinated by The Friends of the St. Croix Wetland Management District (FSCWMD). ProBuild provided the decking as part of a donation. Star Prairie Fish and Game provided funding and volunteers, some of whom are here today, helped provide labor,” said Tom Kerr, USFWS Manager.

An audience of about 25 people joined in a discussion with U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI7) about the nature of volunteering and benefits of partnerships.

“We’re standing in the middle of a six-mile corridor of federal land. As a friends group, with the leadership of the USFWS, we raise money for scouting projects, educational programs, and projects like this deck. As part of our outreach to the community we participate in migratory bird counts. We try to do things for the greater good,” said FSCWMD member Warren Irle.

The observation platform is located on the site of an old homestead which overlooked Oak Ridge Lake. The new 400-square-foot deck can be accessed by a short gravel path leading from the parking lot located just off of 220th Avenue. The plan calls for two spotting scopes to be added to the deck by this fall to enable visitors to observe wildlife and waterfowl using the lake. The St. Croix Wetlands Management District includes 44 waterfowl production areas covering about 8,500 acres.

“In doing the research to prove that these large blocks of grassland habitat are beneficial to grassland birds we partnered with a lot of the volunteers from the friends group and various other groups that come out and help collect data. None of the data was collected by service or paid employees. It was all collected through volunteer work. It wouldn’t be possible without partnerships with all of these groups and organizations,” said USFWS Wildlife Biologist Chris Trosen.

Kerr explained that through another partnership with New Richmond High School’s Agricultural Science program, staff from USFWS work together with students to grow plugs of different varieties of prairie plants, which eventually get transplanted into areas like Oak Ridge and add to the diversity of that particular environmental ecoscape. In the process, students get to learn about various aspects of public lands management and programs.

“We are pretty proud of our internship program. One of the reasons it is so strong is because of our partnerships with local sportsmen’s clubs who provide funding for the internships. The program is designed to give college students critical field experience, hands-on learning they might not get in the classroom which helps them when it comes to competing for jobs. Last week, Warren had a chance to talk with the interns about how these wetlands and grasslands are managed. It was a chance to learn what these resources mean to this local community. That’s just not something they would learn in school,” sad Trosen.

Kerr pointed to the Grassland Action Partnership as another example of successful partnering. Fourteen local organizations, spread out across four counties, comprised of 4,000 members encompassing a wide range of missions from grazing to hunting dogs to water quality and rivers, have found common ground in the need for quality grasslands.

Caitlin Smith, Private Lands Biologist for the USFWS, explained that by working with private landowners in the area who appreciate that grasslands can compliment their agricultural operations, thousands of additional private acres have been added to the district’s wetlands inventory. Kerr estimated that over the last 15 years, more than a 1,000 private landowners have partnered with the USFWS on some sort of land conservation project.

“A lot of those opportunities result when neighbors tell neighbors about their projects with us,” said Smith.

Before the customary shaking of hands and sharing of cards, Duffy thanked the audience for their time and efforts and encouraged their continued involvement.

“I want to thank all of you for coming out and sharing this with me, how you all have worked together. It’s a wonderful success story of people finding common ground and making the most of what you’ve been given. You have a beautiful area here. It’s important for me to see this and I’m grateful. You make me a better congressman when you share your ideas with me. It is important that I have your local perspective and I can only get that if you are willing to communicate and participate in a dialogue and I welcome that,” Duffy said.