Northwest Minnesota watershed district taps into tourism potential of flood control impoundments
By Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
WARREN, Minn. — Danny Omdahl knew nothing of buffleheads or pelican nests until the local watershed district built a series of five impoundments to manage the floodwaters that sometimes ravaged this tabletop-flat area of northwest Minnesota.
He does now.
The appearances of buffleheads and pelicans are just two examples of the secondary benefit the Middle-Snake-Tamarac Rivers Watershed District’s flood control impoundments have provided.
The watershed district covers more than 1,400 square miles in Marshall, Polk, Kittson, Pennington and Roseau counties. Its five impoundments, all located within an hour’s drive of Grand Forks, are proving to be a Mecca for birdwatchers.
The largest of the impoundments, the two-mile-wide Agassiz Valley Project, recently earned a spot on the Pine to Prairie International Birding Trail. Founded in 1997, the trail markets more than 45 birding destinations in northwest Minnesota along with Hecla Island and Delta Marsh in Manitoba.
Flood control remains the primary mission, but the watershed district also is making a splash in promoting the impoundments’ tourism potential. ATVs and swimming aren’t permitted, but hunting is allowed in season for those who obtain a permit from the watershed district
“We get a fair amount of calls” — especially about birding — said Omdahl, administrator of the Middle-Snake-Tamarac Rivers Watershed District.
It’s still in the very early stages, Omdahl said, but the watershed district is looking at partnering with other agencies and conservation groups to build a visitor center that would showcase northwest Minnesota’s aspen parkland ecosystem.
The visitor center would complement 440 acres of prairie the watershed district recently received from the Warren-based Agassiz Audubon Society. The late Eldor Omdahl and his wife, Stella, had begun donating the land in 40-acre parcels to the Agassiz Audubon Society in 1981 for conservation and a sanctuary that included trails and wetlands.
Stella Omdahl died in April 2011, and Eldor died that October at the age of 101.
After a dispute with the local Audubon board, Eldor Omdahl in 2009 decided to donate the final 40 acres of his gift to Audubon Minnesota, the state affiliate of the National Audubon Society, instead of the local group. The 40 acres included his home, a manager’s residence and a building that served as a visitor center for the Wetlands, Pines and Prairies Audubon Sanctuary, as the site was called.
A court decision that ruled Omdahl could sell the land to Audubon Minnesota instead of the local chapter and the election of a new Agassiz Audubon board in June 2010 signaled an apparent end to the dispute. Heidi Hughes, who came from the Pepin, Wis., area, was hired in 2011 to manage the 40-acre site and the 440 acres owned by the Agassiz Audubon Society, which paid her salary.
The hiring of Hughes also appeared to signal a closer collaboration between the local Audubon chapter and Audubon Minnesota, and her experience in promoting nature tourism played a key role in putting the Agassiz Valley impoundment on the Pine to Prairie Birding Trail.
Last December, Audubon Minnesota unexpectedly evicted Hughes from the residence on the sanctuary grounds. Hughes didn’t reply to Herald requests for comment, but Sheila Hoerner, president of the Agassiz Audubon Society, said the local group’s office now is in downtown Warren, and access to the trails on the 440 acres of land it transferred to the watershed district is adjacent to the former headquarters site owned by Audubon Minnesota.
“The time at Christmas was not an easy time, but we have moved on,” Hoerner said in an email. She said the group is “looking at new projects with our 440 acres and building partnerships with like organizations that have the same interests.”
While the watershed district now owns the land, Danny Omdahl — a distant relative of Eldor Omdahl — said the Agassiz Audubon Society remains the farm “operators.” The land is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, and the CRP contracts remain in the Agassiz Audubon Society’s name, Danny Omdahl said.
Since the eviction and subsequent land transfer, Hughes has been hired by the watershed district as its education and outreach coordinator.
“It’s something all districts could really use, but it’s been great to have her here,” Omdahl said.
On the table
Still to be decided is what happens with the 40-acre site Audubon Minnesota owns. Matthew Anderson, executive director of Audubon Minnesota since April 2013, said Hughes was living in the Eldor Omdahl house without a lease, and the state organization had no option but to evict her.
“The house had been built back in the early ’80s, and it had not been maintained super well,” he said. “When we started looking into it, the list of things that needed to be done to bring it up to par and make it habitable and the resources we had, the math just didn’t add up.
“Without a lease and without being able to make it habitable, it was really no other choice.”
A couple of outbuildings on the grounds should be torn down, Anderson said, and fixing up the former manager’s residence might cost more than it’s worth.
“We have to think long and hard if it makes sense to rehab that building,” he said.
Anderson said he’s hoping Audubon Minnesota can come to a “programmatic agreement” with the Agassiz Audubon Society and the watershed district to make the 40-acre site part of an overall plan for promoting the area’s tallgrass prairie landscape.
In mid-May, Anderson and Mark Martell, Audubon Minnesota’s director of bird conservation, visited northwest Minnesota to meet with watershed district officials about possible partnerships and plans for the 40 acres it still owns. Anderson said he and Martell also met with staff at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge.
Nothing was decided about the 40 acres, Anderson said, but he was encouraged by the visit.
“The watershed district has some really great ambitious plans for a (visitor) center and classroom and research station west of the (Agassiz Valley) impoundment, west of our 40 acres,” Anderson said.
“We have to take a look at what support, if any, we can offer to that project,” he added. “We’ll be interested to see some of the plans and ideas.”
The focus has to stay on conservation, Anderson said.
“We get support to do conservation work, and we have to weigh conservation impact vs. maintaining structures,” Anderson said. “That’s a tough tradeoff.”
It’s possible, Anderson said, that Audubon Minnesota could help fund a community conservation coordinator, similar to a position they recently filled in southeast Minnesota.
In the meantime, Danny Omdahl said, plenty of opportunities exist among the challenges. Better signage, informational kiosks and perhaps viewing platforms all are among the possibilities for the impoundments.
A team of partners — including the Center for Changing Landscapes at the University of Minnesota, the Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership at the University of Minnesota-Crookston and other watershed districts in northwest Minnesota — also is exploring a nature and birding trail that would connect other flood control impoundments in watershed districts across the region.
“We want the public to be here,” Omdahl said.
For more information, check out the Middle-Snake-Tamarac Rivers Watershed District website at mstrwd.com or call (218) 745-4741.