NORWOOD YOUNG AMERICA, MINN. — Adjacent to this town on the southwest outer ring of the Twin Cities, alongside Hwy. 212, is Tiger Lake, which in years long past was a duck haven. Mallards and other fowl nested here, as did shorebirds, and during spring and fall, the lake was flush with migrants flying to distant environs.
But not only ducks found Tiger Lake to their liking, a body of water named generations ago for the mountain lions sighted near it. Pheasants also were plentiful in the grasslands that surrounded the lake, as were, variously, rabbits, red-winged blackbirds and other wildlife.
But time marches on, and oftentimes to the detriment of Tiger Lake and other wild places. Wetlands are drained and grasslands plowed under, ostensibly to benefit farmers and farming. But sometimes the conversion of these properties to croplands yields little benefit because the land is too wet or otherwise is insufficiently productive.
Fortunately, some of these lost lands are enjoying rebirths, thanks in large part to Minnesota voters' approval in 2008 of what is commonly called the Legacy Amendment. The amendment fractionally increased the state sales tax and dedicated a portion of funds raised to land-and-water acquisition and stewardship.
Tiger Lake's vast conservation complex provides an excellent example of the kinds of partnerships that help turn Legacy Amendment dollars into public benefits.
• The reclamation project that produced Tiger Lake's present-day 538-acre wildlife area began in 2011 and added its first tract in 2013, a 130-acre parcel that abuts Tiger Lake.
• This purchase, like all land purchases in Minnesota benefiting conservation, was made from a willing seller.
• The six Tiger Lake land acquisitions that have occurred in the years since — most recently in 2020 — have been possible thanks in large part to money appropriated from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, one of four funds created by the Legacy Act (the other two funds support clean water and arts and culture.)
• The Tiger Lake OHF appropriations have been joined by funds from 34 other partners, ranging from local sportsmen's clubs to the Carver County Pheasants Forever (PF) Chapter (Tiger Lake lies within Carver County), other PF chapters, the PF national office, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, other conservation groups and individual donors. Example, a fundraiser attended by 30 people specifically to raise money for the most recent Tiger Lake acquisition raised $75,000.
• Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited (DU) are among major recipients of Outdoor Heritage Fund money appropriated by the Legislature. But the money doesn't go directly to them or other grantees. Instead it goes to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), whose charge is to distribute the money after the work has been completed according to contract criteria. The DNR also follows up with periodic inspections of the assigned work, ensuring that PF and DU, as well as The Nature Conservancy and other fund recipients, provide the required technical, fund-raising, engineering and other work necessary to complete projects.
• To propose, plan and undertake these and similar conservation efforts, and to help farmers and other landowners take advantage of federal and state conservation programs that can boost their bottom lines while benefiting land, water and wildlife, PF employs 27 field staff in Minnesota, 18 of whom are farm bill biologists.
• While acquisition is the first step in developing complexes like Tiger Lake, enhancement or restoration of the acquired lands often follows. Trees encroaching on grasslands might require removal. Additionally, brome and other grasses that are inefficient wildlife incubators often must be replaced with native-prairie mixes that more broadly provide food and/or cover for songbirds and pollinators, in addition to game birds.
• Ultimately, acquired and enhanced lands are turned over to the DNR or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which maintain the projects indefinitely.
Eran Sandquist leads PF's conservation efforts in Minnesota. A 19-year PF employee who began his career as the group's first farm-bill biologist, Sandquist grew up near Delano, Minn., along the North Fork of the Crow River.
"In addition to protecting about 4,000 acres a year,'' Sandquist said, "we also enhance and restore other public lands. To accomplish this, we employ a lot of private contractors such as surveyors, assessors and so forth — 57 in the case of Tiger Lake alone."
Because more landowners want to permanently protect their properties than there is acquisition money available, PF and other groups usually say "no,'' more often than "yes'' to sales pitches.
"The days of buying 'postage-stamp' size properties are gone,'' Sandquist said. "As with Tiger Lake, we try to connect acquired properties to existing properties to get the most benefit for wildlife. Also, when we can, we build these complexes relatively close to populations centers so we can provide access to the most people.''
Last Saturday, on the pheasant opener, blaze-orange-clad hunters and their dogs paraded across much of Tiger Lake's acreage, hoping to roust a ringneck or two.
Though some of these efforts succeeded, by late Sunday afternoon, the scene was different. Duck hunters were on site then at Tiger Lake, their decoys decorating one of the complex's small lakes, hoping to attract ducks or other wild fowl to within shotgun range.
Just like in the old days.