Better Food from Better Water

White rice is a staple in a very large part of the world, but it’s wild rice – Minnesota’s State Grain – that has a special presence here. Perhaps it’s because such a large percentage of its total production occurs in Minnesota that we love this gluten-free, protein-rich grain that’s the sine qua non ingredient of the eponymous soup and many a stuffing recipe.

Recently, Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa (CCMI) had an opportunity to plant wild rice in parts of the St. Louis River where it once grew abundantly. They also learned important lessons about how Native Americans view the land, the water and about what they see as their responsibility to the St. Louis River and its estuary.

Undaunted by naysayers who told them wild rice wouldn’t grow, CCMI joined an effort led by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and others to undo destruction caused by industrial development that had reduced to almost nothing plantings that had once covered 2,000 to 3,000 acres. The project’s goal is to restore 250 acres during the next five to ten years.

The Fond du Lac resource management team sourced wild rice seed from other areas in Minnesota and used air boats to plant. It was a catch-as-catch-can process, as the team had to modify its schedules to work around what was, at best, a sporadic seed delivery schedule. Over three days, a nine-member CCMI crew from Moose Lake and a field specialist planted 10,000 pounds of wild rice, adding to the total of 12,000 pounds planted in 2016.

2016 was the second year of a three-year planting plan. 2015 results saw success in every bay in which the seeds were planted, but hungry Canada geese ate a significant portion of that year’s yield. The Fond du Lac resource management team is working to mitigate the problem.

An important benefit of the project was the opportunity to work with Tom Howes, the natural resources director for the Fond du Lac band. Tom taught the CCMI crew about the special relationship it has with the river and about the responsibility they feel to care for it. The band considers the river “a place of abundance” and an integral component of its community.

Thanks to the restoration efforts of the Fond du Lac tribe and the support of the CCMI crew, that abundance will grow well into the future.


Protecting Our Assets: How to Keep A River in Shape

Withe, wattle, and gabion.* If you want to improve your vocabulary, start studying terms environmentalists bandy about when they develop strategies to control erosion that occurs around our State’s rivers and streams. It’s important work, because those waterways are among our most bountiful assets. In fact, straightened and placed end-to-end, Minnesota’s rivers and streams could circle the Earth almost three times.

Crews from Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa (CCMI) play an important role in controlling erosion and repairing deteriorated river banks. They find the most opportunity at rivers and streams whose banks’ loose soil and lack of woody plants have made them particularly vulnerable. Eroding banks impact habitat and property – the former via sediment buildup that can harm fish and wildlife and upset the natural ecosystem; the latter via compromised banks that invite water to find its own path.

CCMI’s work can be as straightforward as adding stability to the soil by planting woody vegetation and grasses in bare spots or applying willow posts that sprout along the banks. More serious erosion control might mean using bundles of live branches, laying loose rocks, building stone walls and installing gabions.

At one CCMI project, the crew employed a newer method of erosion control that used large logs along with packed sticks and vegetation. Working in the gullies with mattocks and picks, they dug trenches, set in the ends of the logs and then used log carriers to hoist them. Positioning each log slightly above the next, they worked upward by sections along the stream. Once they set the logs, the team packed them with sticks and filled gaps with soil.

Because the method was new, CCMI crew members got a nice lesson in the importance of planning. “Measure twice, cut once” became the order of the day – particularly to avoid the need to extract or reposition a large log.  

Of course, further complicating any erosion project is the water that caused the problem in the first place. Add a bit of dirt, and you’re dealing with mud that can confound even the normally simple task of getting around. Mud can hold boots captive, and crew members tell stories of grabbing a handful of plants from the bank – some of them poison ivy – to gain leverage.

There’s no need for obscure words to describe the impact of these projects and the important role they play in maintaining the quality of life in our great state: “Beautiful” would probably do the job. 

*A withe is a slender flexible branch or twig. A wattle is a fabrication of poles interwoven with slender branches, withes, or reeds. A gabion is a basket or cage filled with earth or rocks. And a mattocks is a digging and grubbing tool, akin to an axe or pick.

Exploring, learning and bonding in the North Shore

Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa Individual Placement members with the Minnesota DNR ventured out of the metro area on a trip to the North Shore for four days in late October. They drove a total of 700 miles up to the border of Minnesota and Canada and then back down to St. Paul. They stopped at twelve different locations that were a mix of State Parks and Scientific and Natural Areas.

"It’s important to learn about and explore new places in the state. It helps connect us to our work, achieve more and grow professionally. The valuable skills and knowledge gained by attending the short work trip is of great interest to all the CCMI DNR crew members. It is also a CCMI DNR crew tradition to take a spring and fall work trip and experience Minnesota’s natural resources."

Follow their journey here!