“This conservation easement is dedicated to the late Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson in this the fiftieth anniversary year of the signing of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act on October 2. Gaylord Nelson dedicated his life and public service to protecting the environment. Through his leadership, the present-day environmental movement took root. The St. Croix River was a special place to Gaylord Nelson and as such he wanted future generations to also have the opportunity to appreciate and enjoy its natural beauty.”– Deed of Conservation Easement and Baseline Documentation, Gaylord Nelson Tract
Last year, as the St. Croix River was celebrating its 50th anniversary protected by the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, the work to protect its waters and scenery took a quiet, important step.
Thanks to a farmer, neighbors, and a conservation organization coming together, a nearly mile-long stretch of St. Croix River bluffs near Osceola will remain undeveloped far into the future.
When the real estate deal closed in November, it marked the success of a growing conservation strategy that works with farmers to preserve rural landscapes and natural resources.
“Farmers have a role to play in conservation, when you look at who controls land and the amount of land and the potential impact on the watershed,” says Dan Guenthner, a nearby organic farmer and a board member of Standing Cedars Community Land Conservancy. “But farmers are caught between economics of farming and some of the stewardship issues of farming.”
The project achieved the seemingly distant goals of protecting the wild river, creating the opportunity for a new stretch of hiking trail, and making it possible for a sixth generation to someday work the same piece of land, despite a difficult economy for dairy farms.
It all started one night around a kitchen table, after farmer David Wurst got done harvesting hay for the day.
‘It’s in our blood’
Two brothers named Peter and Martin Wurst founded the farm in 1852 that David now runs, the fifth generation. He started farming it when he turned 18, and has kept at it with his wife Beth for the past 32 years.
“My dad quit milking cows a few weeks after I graduated high school,” Wurst says.
He currently keeps 50 to 60 cows, and grows crops for feed on 750 acres in the area.
Wurst has three children, from ages eight to 18. They are all active in the operation. He says his daughter enjoys milking cows, and his son loves tractors. The kids have already expressed interest in farming, which was a key incentive for acquiring the land.
“It’s in our blood,” Wurst says. “It was important not to shrink my business at the time I have children looking to come into the family business.”
In addition to the cow barns, Wurst grows feed on about 730 acres in the surrounding area.
For 25 years, it had included a couple hundred acres that neighbored the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. He got started working the parcel by helping the previous landowners with their harvests, and then rented it for his own crops.
When those landowners wanted to sell, they wanted him to buy it — to keep it undeveloped, to pass it along to someone they thought would take good care of it — but the price was high.
Dairy farmer difficulties
At a time when declining milk prices have hit dairy farmers hard, it was doubtful Wurst could make the numbers work.
A record 638 dairy farms closed in Wisconsin last year, more than seven percent. The number of milk cows in the state has stayed stable, though, because many operations are being consolidated into larger and larger herds.
The high number of dairy cows means milk production has stayed high, which drives down prices, further stressing small dairy farmers.
It’s not a good time to try investing in the future of a farm.
The landowners had also asked Standing Cedars Community Land Conservancy, which has protected and manages extensive tracts of land both up and down the river from the site, if the organization wanted to buy it for more than $2 million.
Unable to afford the whole acreage, Standing Cedars had to pass. Within days, “for sale” signs popped up.
The price wasn’t practical for either the nonprofit conservancy or the dairy farmer. It might have made sense for someone who wanted to subdivide the land, creating valuable building lots with views of the St. Croix. Those houses could also be visible from a stretch of the river that is almost entirely free of human structures.
That’s how Standing Cedars and the Wursts ended up working together.
“This happened very quickly and it happened because everybody was willing to work closely with the other principal partners,” Guenthner says. “We all knew we couldn’t do it without valued contribution from other players.”
The deal was hammered out over a few busy days, as the sellers sought to get the highest possible price through a closed bid process.
“We met with David on a Tuesday night about 9 p.m., when he was just finishing haying,” says Guenthner, the organic farming neighbor on Standing Cedars’ board. “We were about a week away from deadline for closed bid. David knew other farmers were going to want to put in a bid on this.”
The next day, Guenthner and neighboring landowner and St. Croix River champion Peter Gove went over to the Wursts and were able to work out a deal.
Providing part of a link between other Standing Cedars properties, adjacent to National Park Service lands and the Farmington Bottoms State Natural Area, and comprising a significant section of bluffline on the remarkably undeveloped stretch of the St. Croix, it was a highly desirable place to protect.
Using most of the conservancy’s cash reserves held in its “Opportunity Fund,” and with generous donations from neighbors, Standing Cedars bolstered the Wursts’ bid by about 15 percent, in exchange for a conservation easement on the sensitive lands along the bluff.
“To go from being asked for $2 million, and then putting in $100,000 and protecting this open space, it shows that targeted, fairly reasonable sums of money can actually contribute to a lot of conservation value,” Guenthner says.
Regional nonprofit the Landmark Conservancy also helped craft the easement to satisfy everyone’s needs.
The easement lets the Wursts farm the land, but prevents future development, and allows a hiking trail to cross it. The trail could eventually be part of a six-mile path connecting two of Standing Cedars’ largest properties.
While the organization couldn’t afford an easement on the whole tract, or to buy it outright, they could focus on the most important land along the edge of the bluff.
It took all the partners having goals that meshed well, and being willing to compromise, for the effort to work. Wurst needed to acquire the property at a price that made it viable for a small dairy farmer, Standing Cedars wanted to protect the river and the area’s mosaic of protected prairies and working farms, and neighbors wanted to ensure the area remained undeveloped.
“Its a great story of farmer, adjacent landowner, local land trust collaboration to protect land from development on the Riverway’s boundary,” says Peter Gove. “Naming the tract after Gaylord Nelson was an easy choice given the 50th anniversary this year of one of his many conservation achievements.”
The sale closed on November 20. This spring, rather than excavators digging the foundations for new homes, David Wurst will plant his corn like he has for decades, on land he now owns.
And the river will remain nearly as wild and healthy as it was before Wurst’s great-great-grandfather first worked the land 167 years ago.