Many residents of the northern Great Plains thanked providence this spring that record floods spared their homes. They may not know it, but some are also in debt to retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Grady E. Mann.
Thanks in large part to Mann, some 15,000 square miles of western Minnesota marshland escaped the plow and retain a historic ability to hold runoff and support waterfowl. But 60 years ago, when Mann began seeking public support for wetland restoration, the concept drew a cold reception.
Never mind that only 138,000 acres of prairie wetlands remained of the two million estimated to have existed in the early 1800s. Few residents saw wetlands as good for much outside of crop production. The Service had its skeptics, too.
As head of the Service’s first wetlands preservation office in Fergus Falls, MN, Mann set out to win over doubters. “I spent an awful lot of time working with the public and commissioners and civic groups, PTAs …until the wetland story had been told,” recalls the conservationist, now 89. The former World War II tank commander spoke before Kiwanis Clubs, Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, church groups and local farmers. He prepared weekly radio broadcasts and went on local TV.
“I spelled out very definitely that I wanted to have that whole chunk of country there,” he says, referring to the 15,000 square miles of Prairie Pothole land he mapped over several summers, “buying or taking easements on those wetlands.” His aerial survey map is still used by land use experts. Mann also argued for the preservation of uplands. Marsh is important, he says, “but you had to have upland vegetation to go along with it, to make it viable” as wildlife habitat.
Slowly, the message began to stick with landowners. Today, Mann describes the preservation of the land as his proudest achievement.
What advice would he offer to those working today for wetland conservation? “Establish your priorities early in the ballgame and don’t move an inch,” he says.
Now, as then, the former outdoorsman and canoeist appreciates the native landscape. “The only place to think is on a prairie,” he once told a colleague. What did he mean? “That’s just the way I’m made,” he answers. “I’m not meant for an office too long. I get the key thoughts while I’m sitting right there with the potholes and marshes right around me."