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Reviving the Past for the Future

Just down the road from the airport in Leon, Mexico, looking out a taxi window this spring, I watched a man in a straw hat push a hand plow pulled by a burro. Factories, warehouses, and the highway surrounded his field. A city of 1.5 million people stood on the horizon. The nearly timeless image of this farmer assured me that colonial Mexico had not changed beyond recognition in the 28 years since my husband and I had last visited.

In this issue, powerful stories and images of the past come into the present. "Retracing the Red River Trail" recollects the almost-forgotten history of oxcart trade routes in use 150 years ago, when Minnesota became a state. Traces of the trail remain today in Crow Wing State Park and a few other places.

In the field of conservation, progress often means going back to the past to rejuvenate what's been almost lost -- a wild creature, a natural community.

The lead story, "In Celebration of Sturgeon," chronicles the restoration of a prehistoric fish to the Wild Rice River in the Red River basin. A new opening in a dam reconnects the waters where sturgeon once roamed. With the release of fingerlings to the free-flowing river, members of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe are regaining their connection to this sacred fish, says White Earth fisheries manager Randy Zortman.

Also in need of restoration in the Red River valley are wetlands, particularly on private land. By the mid-1980s, less than 5 percent of pre-European settlement wetlands remained in five of the seven counties along the river. Most had been drained and filled for agriculture. DNR area fisheries supervisor Dave Friedl says restoring and protecting wetlands is the long-term solution to managing excess water on the land.

Minnesota's Wetland Conservation Act calls for "no net loss of wetlands." Both regulatory actions and conservation incentives, such as the Conservation Reserve and Wetlands Reserve programs, work to protect wetlands on private land. In 2006 the DNR initiated a statewide aerial survey of wetlands to track gains and losses. The annual survey examines wetland changes on nearly 5,000 one-square-mile plots on a three-year cycle.

DNR wetland program coordinator Doug Norris says concern has shifted from drainage of large wetlands to smaller temporary wetlands. According to the most recent (2001-2003) Board of Water and Soil Resources wetland report, more than three-quarters of draining and filling projects affected less than half an acre. Nevertheless, the report points out, impacts add up and "total destruction of small wetlands leaves remaining wetland areas more isolated."

Many temporary or seasonal wetlands fall into one of several categories of activities exempt under the wetland law, and are therefore unprotected from draining or filling.

As "Spring-to-Life Ponds" illustrates, seasonal wetlands are mightily productive but easily overlooked. They serve as breeding habitat for aquatic species, including invertebrates for waterfowl. Author Larry Weber, who has been visiting and studying these so-called vernal ponds for a half century, encourages young naturalists to look for them.

Some states are enlisting volunteers to find and monitor vernal ponds. In Massachusetts, a biology teacher and his high school students formed a club that collected biological data on hundreds of vernal ponds. After the state's natural heritage program reviewed the data, the ponds gained certification that gave them state protection.

The value of volunteer citizen scientists is becoming more evident every year, as "Watchers of Butterflies" attests. The students who collect data for the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project enable scientists to better understand the life cycles of the butterflies that summer in Minnesota milkweed patches and winter in Mexico oyamel fir forests. This year they'll be watching to see if illegal cutting of 1,110 acres of trees in one of the 12 mountaintop monarch reserves will alter populations. The new North American Monarch Conservation Plan lays out strategies for the governments of Canada, Mexico, and the United States to mitigate threats to monarch habitats.

The need to repair what's broken, to regain what's lost, and to reconnect what remains is inherent in conservation work. When people come together, this work can revitalize human communities too.

Kathleen Weflen, editor

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