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Understanding soil, water elections in St. Louis County

Districts north and south will feature seven seats up for election in November. What are these boards and why are they important?

Sign by plant buffer.
A sign asks people to stay out of a buffer zone planted along a restored section of Chester Creek downstream from the Chester Bowl chalet Tuesday. The South St. Louis Soil and Water Conservation District was involved in restoring 750 feet of the stream, removing two dams, realigning the stream, and planting the buffer zone.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Tucked under the candidate filings on the Secretary of State website, following races for county attorney, auditor, commissioners, and sheriff, are a series of other elections.

The slots are filled with names known mostly as neighbors. They’re not hardcore politicians. They’re running for their local soil and water conservation district boards in north and south St. Louis County.

“Oftentimes, there aren’t any challengers,” said Frank Modich, a Hibbing-based incumbent running for the 3rd District seat in the north.

This time, he’ll face a challenger, Chris Freeman, of Hibbing.

“I’m encouraged,” Modich said. “It’s nice to see there’s that level of interest from somebody who holds the same passion for conservation.”

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Man smiling
Frank Modich

To learn more about the soil and water conservation districts — one based in Virginia, the other Duluth — the News Tribune spoke with several local authorities and would-be seat-holders running for their district boards. The goal was to find out the scope of work done in these offices, why they’re needed, and where elected officials come into play.

“We are our own unit of government, just like a school district,” said Anita Provinzino, the district administrator of North St. Louis Soil and Water Conservation District.

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Provinzino is one of six full-time employees in the office, carrying out duties and adhering to budgets approved by the board members.

It’s a broad array of tasks that’s conducted by the office, but it boils down to a service-based mission.

“Soil and water conservation districts are government units that work directly with the private land owner,” Provinzino explained.

Deer walks into stream.
A deer leaves the planted buffer zone along Chester Creek and enters a restored section of the stream in Chester Bowl on June 22.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Office personnel will conduct walking site visits and issue forest stewardship plans. They can enroll lands into tax-based sustainability programs offered by the federal government. They can advise on invasive species for folks who might want to get rid of something like buckthorn or spruce budworm and replant and reforest. They help a landowner develop a wildlife habitat, whether it’s for white-tailed deer, sharp-tailed grouse or birds in general.

“We’ve got ways of clearing different parts of the forest to attract different species,” Provinzino said.

“Pollinators are a big thing now,” added Peggy Pearson, of Angora, of building habitat for bees and other insects.

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A dairy farmer, Pearson is a longtime 1st District supervisor on the North St. Louis board. She’s been elected numerous times, following in the footsteps of an uncle who held the same seat for more than 40 years.

Sapling in a cage.
A sapling planted in the buffer zone along Chester Creek grows inside a cage of fencing protecting it from browsers.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“We have clean water and we want to keep it clean — that’s what our aim is,” Pearson said.

The districts operate on minimal budgets, with each less than $1.5 million annually. Office administrators compete for grants, conduct native species tree sales, and generally cobble together their funding.

One of the bigger infusions annually is money to manage watercraft inspections and decontamination efforts on several major lakes in the northern part of the county. Since 2014, the north district has received roughly $400,000 annually in state funds to conduct the practices on Bear Island, Birch, Burntside, Crane, Ely, Gilbert-Pit, Johnson, Kabetogama, One Pine, Pelican, Shagawa and Vermilion lakes.

“We take a relatively small amount of hard money from the county and state and leverage it up through grants, cooperative agreements, even selling trees,” said Duluth-based 5th District supervisor Debra Taylor, board chair in the south district. “We take a little bit and turn it into a lot more.”

Chester Creek.
A buffer zone, right, of plants separates a restored section of Chester Creek from the mowed and developed area of Chester Bowl.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Taylor has been a supervisor for more than 20 years. She was there when the district helped oversee the city’s response to strengthen creek habitats following the 2012 flood, which revealed stormwater runoff could be better absorbed by strengthening habitats.

Taylor described the emergence of soil and water districts nationally following the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.

“The idea was rather than somebody from the federal or even state government coming to talk to local people about what they should be doing on their land,” Taylor said, “it’d be much more effective if somebody local the landowner trusted was talking to them about how to better manage their lands.”

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Even today, the districts don’t make a point of soliciting landowners. Involvement with the district’s work is entirely voluntary, and requires a landowner to make first contact.

“We’re not regulatory,” Taylor said. “We are purely public education, public advisory, and technical assistance. People can approach us without fear of any kind of regulatory action.”

Nonpartisan in nature, the seven seats up for election this cycle attracted nine candidates for the Nov. 8 election.

Janet Sue Severaid Humphreys
Janet Sue Severaid Humphreys

One of those is Janet Sue Severaid Humphreys, of Ely, running for the 1st District seat on the north board. Severaid Humphreys has spent much of her life on the East Coast, and has a background in science and teaching. Her family has long owned property in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

She said she was encouraged to seek a seat by members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, and is challenging Peggy Pearson. Severaid Humphreys likes that the seat helps tackle more practical land stewardship issues and not larger political ones.

“I’m not interested in getting into a mining debate — that gets pretty tough up here,” Severaid Humphreys said. “But I do feel I can help protect the lakes and land for northern Minnesotans.”

The News Tribune asked the DFL why it would advocate for someone to join the nonpartisan soil and water board.

"The DFL Party recruits candidates for partisan and nonpartisan office for the same reason: to help elect people who will build a better Minnesota for everyone," DFL Chairman Ken Martin said. "Our party believes the government can play an important role in creating a more just and fair future, and we work to support candidates who share that vision."

It is also not uncommon for county commissioners or city councilors on nonpartisan boards to receive political endorsement.

“I feel like I can make a difference,” Severaid Humphreys said.

That was a theme among all of the sources associated with soil and water conservation boards. They felt useful.

“We help landowners,” Pearson said. “We give direction as a board, and they do the job out of the office. And they do a fantastic job.”

Woman talks by Chester Creek.
Kate Kubiak, then-project manager for the South St. Louis County Soil and Water Conservation District, talks in 2017 about plans to remove this dam and a second farther downstream and restore 750 feet of Chester Creek downstream from the Chester Bowl chalet.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
Water flows over a dam.
In 2017, Chester Creek flows over one of two dams in Chester Bowl since removed. Spring fed, Chester Creek is one of 23 major creek ravines in Duluth.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
Chester Creek.
Chester Creek flows into a pond below the Chester Bowl ski hill, left, in 2017. After two dams downstream were removed, 750 feet of stream banks (including the area seen here) were restored to a more native condition.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Brady Slater is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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