CRAWFORD COUNTY - The 2021 Crawford County Land Conservation Award Ceremony was held on Thursday, August 26 at 6 p.m. at the Crawford County Fair Grounds. Each award winner received a Leopold Bench and framed certificate as part of their recognition for helping to conserve our land and water resources.
Awards were presented to:
• Dennis Pozega, Conservation Legacy
• Aaron Brin & Harriet Behar, Conservation Farm Family
• Bob Ziel, Conservation Leadership
Ernest Rayner Family, Water Quality
• Mike & Deb Cross, Wildlife Habitat
• Frank & Gail Ouimet, Conservation Forestry
The Crawford County Land Conservation Committee members are David Olson, Wade Dull, Gary Koch, Bob Standorf and Kim Moret.Land Conservation Staff include County Conservationist Dave Troester, Conservation Specialist Travis Bunting and Administrative Assistant Becky Nagel.
“The Crawford County Land Conservation Committee occasionally decides to present a Conservation Legacy Award to a group or individual that has left a long-lasting impression in our county,” Crawford County Conservationist Dave Troester said. “This year, that award goes to Dennis Pozega, an individual who dedicated his career to protecting the quality of our precious natural resources here in Crawford County.”
Troester described Pozega’s background. He said that Pozega grew up on a small farm in central Wisconsin, where his family raised dairy cattle, hogs, and numerous types of poultry.
“It was here that he realized the connection between agriculture and the need to protect our environment,” Troester explained. “His family knew that conserving the land and keeping healthy soil was critical to maintaining a successful operation.”
Troester said that Pozega would go on to attend school at Fox Valley Technical Institute, before starting his career with the Soil Conservation Service (now known as the Natural Resource Conservation Service) in Richland Center in March of 1983, before transferring to the Prairie du Chien office in September of that year.
“Over the years, Dennis assisted landowners in Crawford, Grant, and Richland counties,” Troester said. “As a NRCS Conservation Technician, Dennis assisted landowners by surveying, designing, and overseeing construction of many different conservation projects. There have been many grade stabilization structures with drainage areas ranging from two acres all the way up to 400 acres, and with outlet pipes ranging from four-foot PVC to four-foot corrugated metal pipe. Another very popular project was streambank protection work, some of which included fish habitat improvement, such as LUNKER structures. Grassed waterways are very important for reducing soil erosion and Dennis worked on projects that ranged from 8-60 foot wide.”
Troester said that other projects that Pozega had completed over the years include stream crossings, stream livestock watering, spring developments for cattle watering, cattle watering pipelines, cattle lanes, access roads, cattle lots, and finally, manure storage structures.
“There are few ridges or valleys in this county that you could travel and not find one of Dennis’ projects,” Troester said. “His work undoubtedly has saved thousands of tons of soil from being eroded from our farm fields or washed away from our stream banks.”
Troester said that Pozega retired in 2013, after 30 years of service to Crawford County landowners, but his service to the area continues today as he now drives for the Aging, Disability, and Resource Center.
Conservation Farm Family
“The Crawford County Land Conservation Committee annually selects one farm family to highlight for the successful, conservation-minded operation they run within the county,” Troester told awards ceremony participants. “To be selected as the Farm Family of the Year requires having balance between having a successful operation and putting forth extra effort to protect the environment. This year, that award goes to Aaron Brin and Harriet Behar.”
Troester explained that since 1981, Behar and Brin’s Clayton Township farm has been managed with a strong conservation ethic for the forests, fields, streams and wildlife, along with growing certified organic crops and livestock.
Troester detailed Behar and Brin’s history with their land. He said that when looking for a place to settle, it took them some time to find their dead end parcel, with a south facing home site and a clear spring and they have been sharing this special place with the native plants, animals, birds, and reptiles for more than 40 years. He said that the first year on the land, Behar attended classes put on by the Soil Conservation Service to complete a conservation plan for the 160-acre property.
“They planted hundreds of flowering shrubs for wildlife in somewhat wet ground unsuited to agriculture. The second year, the highly erodible ridge top land was entered into the conservation reserve program, with numerous acres of the steepest land planted to pine and spruce,” Troester recounted. “Organic farming practices have been the center of their land stewardship ethic, and instead of using herbicides around these evergreens, a scoop shovel of sawdust was used as a mulch to keep the trees from being swallowed up by the grasses. While a few were lost to deer, this organic management has resulted in tall, mature healthy trees today.”
Troester told award ceremony participants that the first few years, some of their land was rented out for hay, with all of the agricultural and open land being managed for organic vegetables, small grains, honeybee forage, medicinal and culinary herbs.
“Harriet and Aaron manage the 12 acres in the valley by growing a wide variety of cover crops, and agricultural crops for sale,” Troester said. “About 15 years ago, they planted an acre of ground to native prairie under the EQIP program. While normally herbicides are used to prepare the area, Harriet and Aaron instead managed the area organically, and were very successful in establishing a highly diverse prairie with little to no unwanted or invasive species.”
Troester said that regional and state soil conservationists came out to view this success. This diverse one-acre prairie, and an additional 25 acres, have something new blooming every week during the growing season, and it is a source of wonder and beauty, as well as seeds to give to others who are starting their own prairies.
“For many years, Behar and Brin have also been agricultural educators and organic inspectors. Both have been approved Technical Service Providers with the NRCS, and have written Transition to Organic Conservation Plans, with Aaron doing this work in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Currently, Harriet is a conservation coach with the Wisconsin Women in Conservation project. Harriet was a former member of the Crawford County Land Conservation Committee and is the chair of the Clayton Township Planning Commission. Harriet also served on a national USDA board overseeing federal organic standards, ending her term as the chair.”
Troester said that numerous field days have been held on their property over the years. One event celebrated the installation of solar electric panels, which provide power for the entire farm. Another reviewed unique methods of managing commercial scale vegetable production, specifically tomatoes. He said that the most recent event focused on the numerous types and benefits of cover crops.
“The 120 attendees viewed chickling vetch, crimson clover, white clover, yellow blossom sweet clover, red clover, and hairy vetch used for both honeybee forage and nitrogen fixation, as well as Japanese millet, rye, wheat, oats with peas, tillage radish and sorghum sudan grass used to improve organic matter and choke out weed species such as Canadian thistle,” Troester explained. “Buckwheat is also planted yearly on the property for the honeybees and for soil building.“
He pointed out that use of organic farming practices and inputs has resulted in very little pest or disease pressure on the crops.
“There has not been a need for even organically approved pesticides to be used for many years, due to the habitat for predatory birds, bats and insects that keep things in balance,” Troester said. “A diversity of crops also prevents diseases from taking hold.
Troester said the two also have a small commercial egg laying flock that rotates through the vegetable fields each year, providing a fertile place for the following year’s sweet corn to grow.
“Every year more diversity in pollinators and predatory insects is seen, with this year’s large buckwheat field especially fragrant and teeming with many species of wasps, butterflies, bumblebees, and many other native bees and honeybees,” Troester said. “It is very gratifying to Harriet and Aaron to observe the great biodiversity that can exist when it is encouraged to flourish.”
Troester also said that much attention has been given to enhancing the springs and a stream on the property to aid the brook trout that naturally reproduce in the clear and clean waters.
“Working with the NRCS on numerous areas under EQIP and CSP, has helped to keep the stream banks in place even during the many high-water events,” Troester said. “Two small, shallow ponds provide habitat for many species of frogs, turtles and snakes. There are numerous breeding pairs of ducks and herons as well. Neighbors have noticed what has been done on the farm and see it as something to be emulated, which has increased the improved areas along the West Fork of Knapp Creek. Aaron and Harriet have done a lot to enhance the health of the forestland as well, with many hours of pulling and flaming out invasive species such as garlic mustard, multiflora rose and honeysuckle.”He said “as you can see, Harriet and Aaron have a successful operation that is truly one of a kind. Their care for the land and for the plants and animals that share it with them is truly unparalleled. For their dedication to conservation, the Crawford County Land Conservation Committee is proud to present the 2021 Farm Family of the Year Award to Aaron Brin and Harriet Behar.”
“Our next award winner has dedicated several decades to ensuring that the natural resources of Crawford County are highlighted and well-protected,” Troester said. “His guidance has helped shaped the status of our resources and the Crawford County Land Conservation Committee wishes to recognize his efforts. The 2021 Conservation Leadership Award goes to Bob Ziel.”
Troester shared that Ziel was born and raised in Prairie du Chien, and has remained there ever since. His passion for the outdoors was born at a young age when he spent many days fishing with his father. Another great influence was a boyhood friend and his father who always made sure there was room for Bob on their fishing or hunting adventure.
“Bob recognizes his belief of what made a successful hunt has definitely changed over the years,” Troester said. “At first, he felt a limit of squirrels, ducks, or whatever fur, fin, or feather he was pursuing at the time, is what made for the best hunts. Over time however, he came to realize that it was the love of the outdoors and the outings themselves that made his most memorable adventures.”
Troester recounted that Ziel became interested in fish and game regulations and soon found himself attending Wisconsin Conservation Congress public hearings. In the mid-1980s, Bob was nominated to fill an open position on the five-person Crawford County Delegation.
“It’s 36 years later, and Bob is now the chair of the delegation, and is still helping to guide decision making for Crawford County and the entire state in regards to season structures, regulations, and land use and other environmental issues. One other highlight was when Bob spent several years on the Turkey Advisory Committee, as he was very enthusiastic about the new hunting opportunities emerging in the state.”
Troester said that Ziel’s passion for turkeys also led him to join the local Prairie du Chien chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. This chapter has been very involved with conservation in the surrounding Prairie du Chien area for over 30 years.
“The Bluff Country Long Spurs sponsor many youth events, including a ‘Learn-To-Hunt’ turkey program each spring,” Troester said. “They teach adults and youth how to hunt safely and successfully, while showing respect to the game and to the landowners and properties where they hunt.”
Other projects Ziel works on with this group include tree plantings, seed donation for food plots, and collecting trash through the Adopt-A-Highway program.
“Bob is also an active member, and past club president, of the Prairie Rod and Gun Club,” Troester said. “Additionally, I have had the opportunity to work with Bob on the County’s Deer Advisory Council, where he also serves as the chairman.”
Troester explained that the group is designed to provide input and recommendations to the DNR on deer management within the county.
“CDACs solicit public input and then set deer population objectives, create antlerless harvest quotas, and establish season structures,” Troester said. “It is no easy task, but Bob has shown great leadership in the way he can conduct fair and open meetings where the public and committee members can engage in respectful and productive discussions.”
Troester said that when he asked Ziel what he felt was the most important aspect of conservation, he said:
“We need to connect with our youth and instill in them the meaning of conservation and hopefully those ideals will be passed on to future generations. Without hunting and fishing, there would not be conservation and without conservation the great outdoors as we know it would not exist!”“In recognition of his passion and leadership in engaging our youth in hunting and fishing, and for his willingness to lead local conservation groups to achieve critical conservation goals, the Crawford County Land Conservation Committee is proud to present the 2021 Conservation Leadership Award to Bob Ziel,” Troester announced.
“The Crawford County Land Conservation Committee likes to recognize landowners that go above and beyond in regard to preserving the quality of our surface and groundwater resources,” Troester said. “This year’s award goes to the Ernest Rayner Family.”
Troester said that back in the early- to mid-1900s, Thorvald and Opal Peterson purchased a property in Utica Township, as they had fallen in love with the area and wanted a farm that was as beautiful as it was productive. They built a house at the base of a bluff, and the property has been in the family ever since. The property is located in Star Valley, near the intersections of County B and C, and is bisected by Tainter and Conway Creeks.
He said that Ernest and Karen Rayner bought the property from Karen’s parents, Thorvald and Opal, nearly 25 years ago.
“They loved the property and the connection to nature that it provided them,” Troester said. “Over the last decade though, they really began to notice the damage that more frequent, large precipitation events, were causing to the stream banks.
“Tainter Creek is a high quality, cold-water trout stream,” Troester related. “In an effort to stabilize the banks and improve fish habitat, Ernest partnered with Trout Unlimited and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”
He said that the project led to the removal of 1,100 cubic yards of sediment from the floodplain. Rip-rap was placed to stabilize over 3,000 feet of streambank. Annual soil erosion has been reduced by 600 tons. The work also included placing root wads, log piers, and boulders in and along the creek to improve fish habitat and water quality.
“Tragically, Ernest passed away a few years ago, before the project could be completed,” Troester said. “His son Ernie decided that to honor his father’s wishes, he would continue on with the project.”
When I asked Ernie why that was important to him, he said:
“Well, Dad wanted to let people enjoy God’s beauty, so I wanted to keep his vision moving forward.”
Troester explained that leaving the land better than when they found it is equally important to the rest of the Rayner family. Ernie’s son Gabe now also lives on the property and is having discussions with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to implement some managed grazing on the property.“This property serves as a shining example to others as to the type of work that can be done to protect our surface waters in the Driftless Area,” Troester said. “So, for their commitment to protecting our natural resources, the Crawford County Land Conservation Committee presents the 2021 Water Quality Award to the Ernest Rayner Family.”
“The Crawford County Land Conservation Committee likes to recognize landowners that take active roles in managing their properties in a way that greatly benefits all wildlife,” Troester explained. “A great example of this is the work done by Mike and Debbie Cross.”
Troester explained that while Mike grew up in Oshkosh, Debbie grew up in a small farming community in Cambria, Wisconsin. Both of their parents were children of the Great Depression, so they both were raised to view land as a source of income and/or food. Their parents taught them how important and fragile our land can be.
“Debbie’s father ‘Buck’ Slinger grew onions, carrots, and mint in the rich soil of Columbia County,” Troester said. “Mike’s father, George, was passionate about hunting deer, ducks, and pheasants and also fishing for walleye and white bass on Lake Winnebago and the Fox/ Wolf River systems.”
Troester shared that Mike’s father got him involved with hunting as well. Pheasants were plentiful in Winnebago County in the early ‘60s and Mike remembers that their black lab flushed many birds for them over the years on a farm on the outskirts of Oshkosh. Eventually, the farm would be home to the new high school.
“The development of that prime habitat being turned into a school greatly impacted Mike and he vowed that if he ever had the opportunity to improve habitat on his property, he would surely do so,” Troester explained. “He even decided to pursue a degree in Field Biology from UW-Platteville.”
In 2004, Mike and Debbie moved from Jefferson, Wisconsin to Prairie du Chien, with the goal of finding a small piece of land to buy and build a home.
“Mike was working as a DNR Game Warden and Debbie worked for DATCP and the prison system,” Troester told award ceremony participants. “After a few years of searching, they found a great 60-acre parcel in the Town of Prairie du Chien, and moved into their new home in June of 2006.”
Since that time Troester said, Mike and Debbie have planted over 5,000 trees and wildlife shrubs on their property. With assistance from the USDA-NRCS, FSA and Land Conservation staff, they have incorporated six acres of tall grass and native forbs, and 1.5 acres of tree and shrub plantings on their property, all of which is enrolled in CRP.
“They have installed two grade stabilization structures (with a third one pending) to reduce soil erosion from the adjacent agricultural fields, which are rented out to a neighboring farmer,” Troester said. “They have 35 acres of their ground in the DNR’s Managed Forest Law Program to promote sustainability and manage invasive species. Mike also ensures that there are two acres of food plots planted each year. The corn, soybeans, turnips, brassica, sunflower, and winter rye all provide habitat and a crucial winter food source for deer, turkey, squirrels, and song birds, to name a few.”
Troester said that Mike’s commitment to wildlife conservation is also apparent with his membership in the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Prairie Rod and Gun Club, and the National Wild Turkey Federation-Bluff Country Long Spurs Chapter. This last group is very special to Mike as their annual Learn To Hunt program introduces many people to hunting and helps instill a conservation ethic in them.
“Mike and Debbie both agree that it is essential to take care of the land and to provide good habitat for both game and non-game species by providing habitat that provides shelter, food, and also quality reproduction and nesting areas,” Troester said. “They feel these efforts will benefit future generations of both people and the wildlife and are very proud of the work they have done on their property.”
“The Crawford County Land Conservation Committee recognizes landowners that take active roles in managing their properties,” Troester told award ceremony participants. “The Conservation Forestry Award is presented to landowners that manage their woodlands for reasons other than simply maximizing their profits off of the land. A great example of this is the work done by Frank and Gail Ouimet.”
Troester explained that, born and raised in Greenfield, Wisconsin, Frank would often travel across the state to visit a good friend that was attending UW-La Crosse. He said that the two would often head down to the Red Mound area to go hunting and fishing.
“Frank says he simply fell in love with the Coulee Region,” Troester said. “He would eventually purchase his first property with his brother, a nice piece of land off of Airport Road, in the Town of Freeman. They would eventually sell this land to the Wisconsin DNR to become part of the Rush Creek State Natural Area.”
Troester said that in 1996, Frank purchased the current property about one mile away, right along Holstein Drive.
“Frank admits that at first it was his goal to obtain a larger property to provide prime hunting opportunities,” Troester said. “To offset the property taxes of this recreational ground, Frank decided to enroll the woods into the Wisconsin DNR’s Managed Forest Law program. He told me this was the first step toward gaining true appreciation of the forest itself.”
Troester explained that the Ouimets met with DNR Forester Gary Harden, who was truly instrumental in starting them down the conservation path. As the previous owners had not done much with the property other than log areas off, the woods needed a lot of help. Troester said the first thing Frank did was to buy a tree identification book to help him learn about the different species on his land.
“The Ouimets signed up for cost-share funding to do a relief cutting. The purpose was to remove undesirable species and bring some light to the preferable trees,” Troester said. “Frank admits that it took him awhile to be comfortable in cutting down some trees for the overall benefit of the forest, but feels that this was a great first step in improving their land.”
The next project the Ouimets took on was converting a small cornfield back to forest. Gary Harden helped them purchase trees and plant the area, alternating rows of walnut and white pine seedlings. After 25 years, and several prunings, the walnut are now 30 feet tall and 10 inches in diameter.
“Frank says some of the best money he ever spent was when he hired someone to construct a forest road through his entire property,” Troester said. “He is now able to easily walk his property almost daily. On those walks, he takes note of where more improvements and practices can be made.”
Troester said that three years ago, the Ouimets conducted their first timber harvest. As it was essentially a timber stand improvement harvest, they heavily targeted ash and also removed less desirable or damaged trees. These days, they are now conducting post-harvest practices that will produce healthier, more diverse woodlands. They are now coordinating projects with DNR forester Christine Walroth.
When asked about his journey into forest management, Frank said:
“Being able to leave the property in better shape than I received it in is very rewarding to me. I can only hope that whoever acquires it after us will have the same values.”“And for their work to ensure their woodlands are managed in a responsible manner, the Crawford County Land Conservation Committee proudly presents the 2021 Conservation Forestry Award to Frank and Gail Ouimet,” Troester said.