Bio-Energy and Habitat Restoration on the St. Croix Wetland Management District, Stanton Prairie Waterfowl Production Area, Fish and Wildlife Service, Minnesota

Project Point of Contact

Joel Kemm, Prescribed Fire Specialist
St. Croix Wetland Management District, MN
715 246-7784 x17

Star Prairie Land Trust, example of unmarketable timber stands before removal for use in bio-energy production
Photo Caption:  Star Prairie Land Trust, example of unmarketable
timber stands before removal for use in bio-energy production

The St. Croix Wetland Management District in Wisconsin manages 7,700 acres of Waterfowl Production Areas.  A District goal is to restore the prairie and oak savanna habitat for nesting waterfowl and other grassland dependent migratory birds.  To do so, the District needed to remove woody brush and scrub trees from the land.  Loggers view such timber stands as unmarketable.  Joel Kemm, a prescribed fire specialist at the District, however, persisted in working with loggers to create a mutually beneficial partnership between the private sector and the District.  The loggers chipped the wood for use at local co-generation plants and other facilities to create bio-energy production.  Without this program the unmarketable timber would have been removed at a cost to the District and gone to the landfill.  Organic materials, such as branches, grass clippings and food waste, are the single largest waste stream entering landfills in the U.S, so finding alternatives is crucially important to increasing the life span of U.S. landfills.  Not only did these projects prevent the wood products from entering the landfill, but they also saved the Fish and Wildlife Service tens of thousands of dollars in tree removal and tipping fee costs, and accelerated the restoration of the native habitat.  Joel is working with land trusts, private landowners and other Refuges to expand this restoration program.

Project Description

Background:  St. Croix Wetland Management District covers eight counties in west central Wisconsin and manages 7,700 acres of waterfowl production areas.  The District contains the only true glaciated prairie pothole region in Wisconsin.  One of the habitat restoration goals of the District is to restore the Waterfowl Production Areas back to the original prairie and oak savanna that once covered this portion of Wisconsin.  Through a combination of natural succession in oak savannas, invasion of woody species into fields as farmland was taken out of production or put into CRP contracts, the spread of invasive species and a state pine tree planting program in the 1970s, many of these grassland and oak savanna tracts have been overtaken by trees.  In order to provide benefits for nesting waterfowl and other grassland dependent migratory birds, these trees found in woodlots, fencerows or plantations need to be removed to start the prairie restoration process.

Because these trees have no market value, the restoration technique involved intensive and expensive cutting of these trees followed up with prescribed fire of slash piles and broadcast burns.  This technique was very labor intensive and severely limited the Service's ability to restore large areas to prairie.  Because of the expense, only small tracts could be completed in any given year.  In addition, the wood was generally burned on site and not used for any other purpose unless some marketable timber was present.  Generally the species present were box elder, buckthorn, cottonwood, or other timber of very little commercial value.  Pine plantations presented another unique challenge in how to remove slash after timber sales of marketable timber and what to do with newly acquired plantations that would not reach marketable size for another 20-30 years.

Project:  Upon Joel's arrival at the District five years ago, he contacted numerous loggers and contractors to try to find a way to use this wood and reduce Service costs for habitat restoration.  Most loggers told him that there was no use for this wood but they would remove it for a fee.  Through persistence, Joel located a logger who was willing to explore the bio-energy market to see if he could sell the wood chips.  The logger was able to find a market for wood chips at a local school district.  Joel continued to work with this logger as well as one other company to integrate habitat restoration into the emerging bio-energy market.  After three years of persistence, in FY07 approximately 4,250 tons of wood chips were removed from WPAs in the St. Croix Wetland Management District resulting in the completion of the first step in the restoration of 70 acres of habitat.  These wood chips were used in co-generation plants which produce electricity.  This was completed at no cost to the Service and saved the Service tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of staff hours that could be put to use on other needed habitat restoration projects.  Once completely restored, these native prairie and oak savanna sites will provide important nesting habitat for waterfowl and other grassland dependent migratory birds.

Partnerships and involvement of other stations:  During FY07, Joel also took the lead in expanding the habitat restoration/bioenergy partnership beyond WPAs in the St. Croix Wetland Management District.  Through the District's Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, Joel worked with the station private lands biologist to expand this program to include prairie and oak savanna restoration on private lands and land trust property.  Land Trusts control significant sized parcels of property in Western Wisconsin.  The Standing Cedars Land Trust that the District is working with on tree removal manages a 1,400 acre parcel along the bluffs of the St. Croix River.  He has also presented an overview of the partnership at the Station's private lands coordination meeting that included over 50 representatives from other agencies and organizations including Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, County Land and Water Districts, Land Trusts, Pheasants Forever, and USDA Farm Service Agency.  One of the goals of the District is restoration of prairie wetland habitat on a landscape scale within the District but beyond the boundaries of isolated WPAs.  The sharing of this cost effective technique to start the restoration process for prairies and oak savannas on a landscape scale will not only meet the habitat restoration goals of the Service but facilitate many benefits to providing alternative sources of fuel for bioenergy.  The St. Croix WMD is also meeting with neighboring stations, including the Minnesota Valley NWR and WMD to share this technique and combine projects to help with restoration on a landscape scale.  Use of this wood for bioenergy production has also provided many benefits to the public, including reducing the need to burn coal to generate electricity.

Star Prairie Land Trust owns a 40 acre parcel which is contiguous with a 238 acre Waterfowl Production Area.  Through the station private lands program, a logger removed trees and shrubs from around wetland basins and on old CRP and farm fields on the land trust property.  The removal was in conjunction with the Service's restoration of prairie and removal of fencerows on the WPA.  The end result is 278 acres of prairie wetland habitat that provides important nesting sites for waterfowl and other grassland dependent bird species.

Joel's leadership in finding this market, working with several loggers to develop the Service's role in this market and then following through with the sharing of his experiences and knowledge with other partners was key to the success of this ongoing project.