Bees, butterflies and dragonflies are enjoying new stomping grounds at a premier Boy Scout camp.
Twenty-four acres of aspen forest was converted into pollinator habitat at Camp Wilderness, 17 miles north of Park Rapids and nestled in the heart of the Paul Bunyan State Forest. The 2,400-acre, nationally recognized Boy Scout camp celebrated its 70th anniversary this summer.
The Scouts planted native prairie grasses and forbs to help improve critical habitat for pollinators. Forbs are broad-leafed, herbaceous, flowering plants.
Three years ago, Camp Director Andy Kietzman voluntarily enrolled the land into the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the largest conservation program in the U.S. Managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, CSP offers financial and technical assistance to implement conservation practices. Some 70 million acres of productive agricultural and forest land are currently enrolled in CSP nationwide.
CSP is an incentive program, Kietzman explained, that rewards landowners for joining. It's a five-year enrollment, with an option to renew for another five years.
"We are always trying to come up with ideas to showcase with and for kids," Kietzman said. Both of his parents are active conservationists, so he was already familiar with USDA conservation programs.
Camp Wilderness agreed to specific "enhancements." Enhancements are management activities that go above and beyond the minimum practice requirements, achieving a higher level of conservation.
Boy Scouts promised to implement pollinator and beneficial insect habitat, install wildlife-friendly fencing and eradicate noxious weeds.
"We chose enhancements that fit our goals," Kietzman said. "There were dozens of programs to choose from. Those just worked for us."
The Northwest Minnesota Foundation then partnered with Camp Wilderness to support the project.
"They really stepped up to the plate and helped," Kietzman said.
The foundation's Natural Resources Grant Program helped pay for seed, diesel fuel, a mower and equipment rental. Camp Wilderness matched the grant with in-kind labor.
Prairie grass seed-big bluestem, Canada wildrye, Indiangrass, sideoats grama and little bluestem-is expensive, noted Kietzman. Camp Wilderness dedicated one percent of the total acreage to native prairie grass.
"That's a sizable portion to do," he said.
Considerable work was necessary to prep the land for planting. Timber at the site was harvested in the winter of 2014, loggers Dale and Kevin Haverinen of Menahga assisting. Kietzman, Assistant Ranger Josh Swatzell and other adult Scout volunteers removed stumps. Ron Nohrenberg and Ordean Bentley operated heavy equipment for bulldozing and discing. Boy Scouts picked rocks out of the 24-acre plot.
The Park Rapids Chapter of Minnesota Deer Hunters donated clover seed to create a firebreak around the field. A controlled burn will be necessary to regenerate the prairie grass, Kietzman said. Fire is part of the prairie's life cycle.
Finally, the camp leased a prairie grass planter drill from the East Otter Tail Soil and Water District. Sixteen species of grass or forbs were planted in July 2014.
An anonymous donor kicked in additional seed suitable for pollinators.
It takes two to three years for prairie grass to become fully established, so the site is still a work in progress. Some seeds must sit in the soil for several years for the casing to soften, Kietzman explained.
"It's pretty sand soil so we don't know what's going to grow," he said.
The camp's long-term goal is to develop an interpretive center at the site for Boy Scouts and the Freshwater Festival. Signs will identify plants and explain why it's so important to support pollinators.
"At this point it's a matter of letting the site grow into itself, then putting up interpretive signs and let the kids enjoy."
In the meantime, forbs bloom in waves from spring through summer.
"The field might be white in June, red in July and yellow in August. The site is more or less a continual growing season," Kietzman said.
Aggressive, noxious weeds have proven to be the biggest problem. Each summer, Scouts are sent out with shovels to dig out invasive plants, like thistles and spotted knapweed. They also remove young aspen that persist in regrowing. These activities help Scouts meet community service requirements and earn merit badges for insect study, environmental science, soil and water conservation, among others.
"This gives us one more outdoor classroom to teach conservation and stewardship. You are taking a fun activity and using it to disguise teaching responsibility, leadership, character," Kietzman said.
By next summer, Kietzman hopes to place two or more bee hives at the site. Their honey could be sold at the camp's trading post. Local beekeeper Brett Kent has been offering advice, including how to deter black bears that roam the camp.
"Enhancing pollinator habitat, removing invasive species and helping wildlife environment are things we'd like to think Scouts would do anyway. It's just the right thing to do," Kietzman said. "It's been a lot of fun to do. We're passing along the importance of wildlife conservation, teaching the next generation to be good stewards of the land."