Written by Tivoli Gough, former Wisconsin State Public Affairs Specialist
Photos by Amanda Zelinski, Wisconsin Public Affairs Specialist
The word ‘partnership’ implies several positive outcomes―equity, mutual care and sustainability. In his 1939 essay, “The Farmer as a Conservationist,” famous Wisconsin conservationist, Aldo Leopold, used it to define conservation. “When land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by his land; when both end up better by reason of their partnership, we have conservation.” It’s fitting that the neighbors to Aldo Leopold’s historic property, the Pines family’s Riverside Farms, have also taken that word to heart as they care for their land in the conservation context of the surrounding landscape. Within the last ten years, the second generation of the Pines family, Jim and his three siblings (Debbie, Tom and Ed) have continued what their father, Phillip, started in the late 1970s. A conservation legacy of their own, the four siblings are the current stewards of what their father Phill started over 40 years ago.
Phill Pines began purchasing land in 1979, acquiring the original 435-acre homestead. “My father was from Chicago and was looking for things to do outside of the city because he had a natural love for the outdoors. As adjacent properties became available to the original farm, he would purchase them,” explained Jim. Over 32 years, the Pines family added 25 more parcels to the property, that now totals approximately 2,600 acres. As a land and wildlife enthusiast, Phill’s passion for conservation and taking care of the land was instilled in Jim growing up. “I’ve been conditioned to what I was exposed to when I was growing up. I was taught to care for the land and I want to continue what my father did to honor him, so my kids learn the same land ethic and I can eventually pass the property to them,” said Jim.
“I’ve been conditioned to what I was exposed to when I was growing up. I was taught to care for the land and I want to continue what my father did to honor him, so my kids learn the same land ethic and I can eventually pass the property to them.”
When Jim and his wife, Margie, became the caretakers of the land, they continued to enhance conservation on the original homestead, as well as adding more acreage when the opportunities presented themselves. Jim and Margie now steward the family’s conservation legacy in the care of 3,400 acres spanning both sides of the Wisconsin River. The land consists of the original 2,600 acres on the north side and 1,000 acres on the south side that Jim and his wife acquired in 2015. The southern property is in Sauk County and adjacent to Aldo Leopold’s famous property, now a National Historic Landmark.
The Aldo Leopold Foundation (ALF) was incorporated in 1982 by Aldo Leopold’s children. As more people visited the famous conservationist’s property, the foundation acquired more land and realized they could demonstrate Leopold’s land ethic by communicating his message to a broader audience. The foundation owns 600 acres and coordinates the 12,000-acre Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area (IBA), which includes state, federal and private lands, and the Pines family properties.
Jim’s parents were friends with the late Nina Leopold Bradley, Aldo Leopold’s daughter. The families have had a lifelong connection and share common land ethic values. “At the time that my folks were first introduced to the Leopold Foundation through Nina, the foundation started to help plan and perform conservation practices on the original 2,600-acre farm. The seeds that were originally sewn through these interactions created a lot of really good work on the land over a long period of time. We are especially proud of the Important Bird Area that is led by the ALF crew and deeply supported by Margie and I,” explained Jim.
The Pines family, ALF and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) are principal partners in the IBA, along with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). “We all had been doing active management for years on our properties adjacent to one another, but we wanted to pull together in the same direction,” explained Steve Swenson, Program Director for the ALF.
“We all had been doing active management for years on our properties adjacent to one another, but we wanted to pull together in the same direction.”
—Steve Swenson, Program Director for the Aldo Leopold Foundation
The IBA program came to Wisconsin in the mid-2000s. This global initiative aims at identifying and conserving the most important places for bird populations. This allowed an opportunity for those interested in bird conservation to put their stamp of approval on places that are important for birds and 93 IBAs were identified across Wisconsin. It also promotes active conservation to assist in providing essential habitat for species of birds in breeding, wintering or migration. “These areas are of high value to birds and represent key sites for conservation and careful management decisions,” explained Chris Miller, NRCS Sauk County District Conservationist.
The Pines’ family land, along with land owned by ALF, WDNR and USFWS became the Leopold-Pine Island IBA, dedicated in 2008. “The partnership gave us a vision for the land beyond what we were doing on a particular acre; it gave us a holistic view for all the properties together in a shared conservation goal,” explained Swenson.
Through the partnership and guidance of NRCS and ALF, a Forest Management Plan was established on Jim and Margie’s 1,000-acre parcel. The plan was written by Carl Cotter, Jim’s land manager, who also worked with ALF at the time. “The plan helped mesh together land management goals of Jim’s land and the partner’s adjacent land at the landscape scale; the IBA objective was also successfully built into the plan,” said Miller. “Many landowners don’t have a forestry background. A forest plan helps those landowners to connect with foresters and natural resource professionals to assess their property and provide guidelines for keeping their land healthy. Forestry practices are almost like a large garden that you need to harvest every 15‒30 years; you have to thin the carrots to keep that garden functioning.”
Once the plan was established, NRCS partnered with Jim through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to install conservation practices across a diverse landscape of agricultural, savanna, grassland and forested acres. “Our goal for the 1,000 acres was to restructure the conservation value of the entire property. The agricultural land needed to be converted to more soil health and regenerative practices, and in some instances back to restored prairies, which is what the land originally was. The prairie and forested areas also needed to be actively managed and restored,” said Jim. The land consists of 200 agricultural acres, at least 350 acres of prairie and the remaining are forested floodplain acres adjacent to the Wisconsin River. “We knew from 1937 aerial photographs and historical data, much of the land was former savanna and we had an opportunity to restore and manage for that,” explained Cotter.
After planning discussions with NRCS and ALF, Jim decided he wanted to recreate the original savanna woodland structure, restoring the acres back to their original purpose. Incorporating the IBA component, the partners came up with a comprehensive plan to target at-risk bird species, build habitat and restore the property. First, timber harvests were completed to create savanna structure. “Overall, stands were 80% canopy cover and we wanted to get around 5‒15%. After harvest, we were at 30% and now we are managing with other practices, like fire, to reach the final goal,” said Cotter.
“Overall, stands were 80% canopy cover and we wanted to get around 5‒15%. After harvest, we were at 30% and now we are managing with other practices, like fire, to reach the final goal.”
Part of the understory was removed to not only combat invasive species, but also native tree species, such as red maple, that are detrimental to the rehabilitation of the former swamp white oak savanna. “It takes time, at least 3-4 years, for the unharvested tree tops to deteriorate and for the original grasses to come back,” explained Jim. After harvest, a forestry mower was brought in to control invasive buckthorn and the residual growth of the maple. The grassland communities came back and are helping create large-scale fire blocks to be used during fire management. “The targeted species we want are naturally regenerating and thriving,” added Miller.
Through EQIP, after harvest, active brush management and prescribed burning continue to take place. Results are already being documented. Monitoring is increasing of the priority species, such as the Red-headed Woodpecker, American Woodcock, Blue-winged Warbler, Field Sparrow and others. “In our bird surveys, we are seeing an increase in our targeted species abundance as a result of the active management,” said Swenson. Through those same surveys, they are seeing increases in target species in the savannas that have had active management and no significant increase in species where management has yet to take place. The conservation practices are proving positive results.
In the Forest Management Plan, Jim has a regular schedule of prescribed burning and brush management to actively manage the acres planned for the future. “In terms of NRCS involvement, at the start, the vision could not have been accomplished without receiving funding to implement these key conservation practices—Chris Miller [NRCS] made the process simple and helped perpetuate the vision,” explained Jim.
The partners looked at the 12,000-acre Leopold-Pine Island IBA as a whole and planned the landscape to optimize each diverse area of habitat to work cohesively with the others. “There are many different areas of habitat and this property had the most grasslands, so, we wanted to create the right habitat for those targeted bird species,” said Jim. “The EQIP program does a great job of acknowledging that the care of land costs money; to have the federal government step forward and help with conservation, because there is a vested public interest in helping maintain healthy water quality, air quality, natural beauty and diversity is excellent,” added Swenson.
Jim also partners with NRCS and ALF to combat invasive species. Through EQIP, the use of a forestry mower increased capabilities to target large-scale improvements. Cotter and staff are working to keep invasive species, like buckthorn and garlic mustard, under control. “With the savanna structures and turning acres back to prairie, what happens naturally is more sunlight gets to the ground. There’s a historical seed bed that starts to come up; natural grasses want to come back when there is less canopy cover,” explained Jim.
“Because of the timber harvest and management actions, we are promoting native sedges and grasses,” added Cotter. Controlling invasive species and putting fire back as a management process on the landscape enables the ecosystem to function along a natural continuum from prairie to savanna to woodland to forest. Before harvest, Cotter and staff were spending up to 250 hours every spring spraying garlic mustard. Last year, they only spent 10 hours in that same area. “The vision moved us into these large-scale land management approaches—instead of controlling 5 acres of garlic mustard here or there, which doesn’t make a big impact, now we are doing more through large-scale approaches, for example, 50 acres of invasive species control,” explained Miller. “These much bigger projects are more impactful on the landscape.”
“The vision moved us into these large-scale land management approaches—instead of controlling 5 acres of garlic mustard here or there, which doesn’t make a big impact, now we are doing more through large-scale approaches, for example, 50 acres of invasive species control. These much bigger projects are more impactful on the landscape.”
—Chris Miller, NRCS
Jim has a unique opportunity with his diverse acreage to combine agricultural systems and natural systems management together. Swenson explains, “With the IBA partnership, NRCS and Jim’s land, it’s a melding of how we create systems that produce agricultural food and fiber and also the natural benefits of land for conservation to help wildlife.” Jim and Margie appreciate the opportunity to carry on the legacy of the land they take care of, and recognize the deep responsibility associated with it. “With Aldo Leopold’s roots, and the impact on habitat and wildlife that we have created through the IBA, I feel that we have made a great deal of progress in fulfilling the responsibilities that come with taking care of this important land. It’s a labor of love and I’m thankful to be the temporary caretaker; I want to keep things moving in the right direction,” said Jim.
This work benefits wildlife, enables neighbors to come together for the good of conservation and helps heal the land. “I am so thankful for this outstanding partnership. Chris Miller with NRCS, Buddy Huffaker and Steve Swenson with ALF, Carl Cotter as my land manager—they have been there, day-to-day and have helped me have a better understanding of the potential for my land. They lay it out, have ideas and provide alternatives. The partnership with NRCS and ALF has been phenomenal in putting conservation on the land,” explained Jim. Swenson further explains, “Having a connection to the NRCS, not only the funding, but also to a natural resources professional and conservationist who has been around the county and understands the issues at scale, knows how to right-size projects and build ambition with the landowner—that’s what I see as a key to our success. It’s these types of relationships with conservationists who provide mentorship that makes a large-scale impact possible.”
Looking forward, Jim plans to partner through EQIP to complete more prescribed burns and brush management. Jim also plans to work with NRCS to implement regenerative agricultural practices on the agricultural acres, until those are eventually turned into savanna. Under the direction of NRCS, Jim also plans to use the Conservation Stewardship Program to further conservation efforts as it aligns after major EQIP practices are installed.
Conservation practices through NRCS have supported Jim’s goal of achieving the land’s highest, best contribution. Jim looks at conservation as allowing mother nature to use her tools and ecosystems to take care of the land. He’s happy to help supplement conservation that assists the natural ecosystem responsibly. Jim explains it best, “The light bulb has gone on for me. Through the partnership with NRCS, I am now able to quantify how conservation practices installed can provide on-the-ground results. For example, every five years, a bird count has shown what specific practices are creating prime habitat for these diverse species. I can see with these practices, what I am getting back with the large increase in targeted species on my property; it’s very powerful to see.” The Pines family, ALF and NRCS will continue to further Aldo Leopold’s idea of land ethic―and Phill Pines’ legacy―by working together for the common good of wildlife and the natural resources upon which we depend.
Curious about the Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area?