Dennis Anderson
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He was 93 this week when he passed, Al Farmes, and he would say he saw the best of it. Wetlands were still plentiful in his youth. And come October, ducks plentiful. "It was different back then,'' he said not long ago.

Farmes came of age at a time when "the field'' united Minnesotans of all economic strata, rich, poor and in between. When he was a kid, Twin Cities suburbs were expanding, but not so much that a few pheasants couldn't be found where Burnsville now sprawls, or limits of mallards felled within earshot of the toniest Wayzata lake home.

Back then, duck boats were more likely to be found in Minnesota garages than golf clubs.

When the history of Minnesota conservation is written, Al Farmes will have earned a noteworthy place. An electronics and radio specialist, he had no formal training in biology or wildlife management. Yet he was among a relative handful of Minnesotans who by their diligence and bull-headedness changed the state's history.

"It was through my brother that I got interested in the 'Save the Wetlands' program,'' Al recalled a few years back.

His brother, Bob, was a Department of Natural Resources regional wildlife manager in Bemidji. Each fall on the day before the duck season opened, Al threw his old Browning into the backseat of his car, loaded up a few decoys and headed north.

"My brother knew all of the good hunting spots,'' he said. "It was different back then. Lots of ducks. Fewer hunters. And the hunters who were in the field were more educated about hunting than hunters are today.''

Beginning in the 1950s, Dick Dorer, Dave Vesall and other Minnesota natural resource professionals led the charge to save Minnesota's wetlands, proposing something no other state had attempted: to purchase wetlands outright, so they could be preserved.

Enter then Al Farmes.

Enamored of these wild places and the life they supported, he traveled the state trumpeting Dorer and Vesall's idea, and convincing legions of Minnesotans of the importance of saving the best of what remained.

Forever a volunteer, Al asked nothing in return. The cause was so important no effort seemed too large. For incentive he needed only to recall his favorite marsh in Stevens County, in west-central Minnesota.

Year by year, the lands around it changed. Where once native grasses grew, soon there were soybeans. And corn.

"To help get the 'Save the Wetlands Program' going, I lobbied at the Legislature, I educated people about the need for wildlife and wildlife habitat and I traveled the countryside to talk to people who lived near the types of things we were trying to save,'' Al said.

A realist, Al in the end knew the program succeeded -- and failed.

Many wetlands were saved. But more were lost. Today, the hydrology of southern, western and northwestern Minnesota has been so altered that even wetlands that remain are in many cases so compromised they are merely "wet lands.''

Al Farmes will be memorialized at Gearhart Funeral Home in Coon Rapids at 11 a.m. Saturday. His accomplishments will be cited, and, assuming Al is listening in, he will smile.

But he should smile even more knowing that what he and Dorer and Vesall and others began so long ago is being continued yet today, and perhaps with still more vigor.

This morning at 10 a.m., a news conference will be held at Game Fair in Anoka to kick off the campaign by hunters, anglers and other conservationists to amend the state constitution when voters go to the polls in November.

Nearly 10 years after it was first presented with a plan to fractionally increase the state sales tax and dedicate the proceeds to natural resources stewardship, the Legislature in its last session agreed to put the idea to a vote.

Al Farmes is gone.

But carrying on the conservation work he and others began so long ago are Garry Leaf, Dave Zentner, Lance Ness, John Schroers, Jim Cox, Don McMillan and many, many more Minnesotans, from Winona to Warroad, Worthington to Winton.

Some might say these volunteers work for nothing.

They would say that -- like Al Farmes -- they work for everything.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com