Recently, more than 70 people took part in a new kind of watershed-based civic engagement in Pemberton MN: The Map Party.
The idea is simple. Get your local historical society, your local soil and water conservation district and local staff from the DNR, the MPCA, the Department of Ag, and academic institutions together in one room with round tables, maps and a buffet line of free food and invite local farmers and landowners to come in and talk.
For four hours we talked about maps and how the river used to flow compared to now, what can be done to slow stream bank erosion, where the sweet spots are in the watershed to direct public resources.
We also talked about the drought – how it reminds the locals about the summer of 1988 when the Cobb River went dry and when the soil gathered on the window sills a half inch thick when the wind blew. We learned about the local rain gage and citizen stream network of neighbors.
We talked about how you could fish for bullheads on the upper reaches in the Le Sueur River before they were turned into ditches that are plowed right up to the edge with no accommodation for the wild.
We talked about the high price of farmland – ($9,000 an acre) and how hard it is for young people to get into farming these days.
We lamented the rise of “teaching to the test” education and how that has served to eliminate programs that once got kids out exploring and learning about the river.
We talked about the lack of birds this year and the lack of water for paddling. And we learned some of the favorite paddle routes along the Big Cobb and the Blue Earth rivers.
We laughed and reminisced with stories of where grandparents managed farms with horses, beef and dairy cows, pigs and chickens. We ate hot beef sandwiches from the Dietz Grocery in Mapleton. We gave out exit prizes and resolved to meet again in a month – this time for a pot luck at a picnic shelter near the mouth of the river, where we’ll meet after an afternoon paddle.
Around the room, the talk was warm, informal and inspiring. You had the feeling that we were a community of Minnesotans with mutual respect for one another, bringing our best efforts forward to think, talk and plan our way toward right action.
Eventually all of this informal talk and relationship-building between scientists, farmers, teachers, bird watchers and canoeists might lead to the formation of a watershed council. Or it might not. It is up to the local people, with interaction with people up and downstream, to fashion their own solution.