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The marsh at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge was well-served by refuge manger Patti Meyers’ decision to enlist the help of local resident Erv Lesczynski
The marsh at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge was well-served by refuge manger Patti Meyers’ decision to enlist the help of local resident Erv Lesczynski.
Credit: Ryan Hagerty, USFWS

Winning Farmers' Support for Marsh Conservation

What do a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) retiree, a dairy products manufacturer, a wastewater treatment plant and the staff at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, in Wisconsin have in common?

They all have played vital roles in reducing the phosphorus and sediment entering Horicon Marsh.

The marsh is a shallow, peat-filled lakebed formed by a Wisconsin glacier 12,000 years ago. It was designated as a Wetland of International Importance in 1990 by the Ramsar Convention, a treaty for the protection of wetlands.

"At sunrise, when the marsh wakes up, it is just incredible to hear all the critters," said Horicon Refuge Manager Patti Meyers. Among them are deer, fox, otters, snakes and nearly 300 species of birds. But in the mid-1990s, Meyers noticed something was wrong with the 32,000 acre marsh, located about 70 miles northwest of Milwaukee. "The diversity of plants wasn’t there," she said. According to Meyers phosphorus-loving cattails were crowding out native plants and fishing holes filled with sediment to the point that they couldn’t support any fish, except maybe carp.

A study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) from 1998 to 2000, confirmed that excess phosphorus was entering the marsh and identified a dairy factory and a wastewater facility in Waupun, WI, among the primary causes. The dairy factory soon modified its operation to release wastewater with less phosphorus content and the city of Waupun installed a state-of-the-art sewage treatment facility. Even so, phosphorus and sediment continued to pour into the marsh, mostly from farmland.

In 2006, Meyers turned to Erv Lesczynski from Wisconsin who had recently retired from the local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service field office. In a contract with Fond du Lac County and funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lesczynski began meeting individually with farmers to encourage them to develop individual conservation plans and implement conservation practices on their farmlands.

Lesczynski has met with 450 landowners, helped generate 35,000 acres of new general conservation plans, including 23,000 acres of new nutrient management plans and facilitated the planning of 55 miles of new grass buffers. Lesczynski, along with staff from the National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever and Wings Over Wisconsin, have encouraged reduced tillage or no till regimens in which local corn, soybean, alfalfa hay producers and large dairy farmers turn over soil as little as possible. The practice minimizes sediment runoff and trims farmers’ equipment fuel and maintenance costs.

Lesczynski estimates that the measures have cut phosphorus entering the marsh by 95 percent from point sources such as the dairy and the wastewater treatment plant and another 30 percent from non-point sources such as farmlands. According to Lesczynski sediment is down by 1,100 tons per year.

How is Lesczynski so persuasive? He has lived and worked in the community since 1975. He knows most farmers personally, understands that each operation is unique, respects the farmers and appeals to their ideals. "By far, the majority of landowners have a great land ethic," he says.

For more information about the refuge, visit or call 920-387-2658.

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June 19, 2012m1 -->June 19, 2012