Workers with the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa drag cut cedars into place alongside Houston County’s Riceford Creek.
Workers with the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa drag cut cedars into place alongside Houston County’s Riceford Creek.

Hard hats, waders, and heavy gloves protected Conservation Corps workers as they wrestled cut cedar trees across Riceford Creek last week. The crews had been sweating in July heat, preparing stream banks for something new to Houston County - cedar tree revetments.

Over the next two weeks, the brushy material will end up pinned along sections of stream bank. If all goes well, it will slow the flow of water in those spots and catch silt, gradually building a new bank where floods have scoured out the old.

The project is a blend of old and new, bringing together a group that was set up to emulate a Depression-era organization with a relatively new low-cost solution to habitat loss.

"It (the Conservation Corps) was started to mimic what the CCC was all about," Dustin Looman said. Looman serves as Southern District assistant manager for the Conservation Corps of Minnesota & Iowa. "It was a part of MNDNR until 2003, when it was cut from the budget."

Then, a group called "Friends of the Minnesota Conservation Corps" revived the CC idea, and the non-profit organization was founded. It has now grown to encompass Iowa as well.

Looman said that the CCM still works largely with MNDNR. It now has an AmeriCorps affiliation that helps to pay workers aged 18 to 25.

"There are a lot of players here," Rich Stemper of the Root River Soil and Water Conservation District said as workers loaded cedars into a trailer. "We're working on two properties along Riceford Creek... not too far below Hidden Bluffs Resort. The Nature Conservancy came to us with a plan to try cedar revetments as an alternative to rip rap." TNC in turn got a grant from the Clean Water Legacy Fund to help pay the Conservation Corps for their assistance, allowing for a larger project. Finally, Winona State University has agreed to conduct a multi-year study on the effects of the work.

"We've done very little of this in Houston County," Stemper said. "In the 20 years I've been with RRSWCD, we've never been directly involved with a cedar tree revetment project yet."

"The Nature Conservancy has been working on watershed conservation projects on the Root River drainage since 2006," TNC conservation coordinator Rich Biske said. "A lot of our work is focused on upland projects, but we recognize that in the streams there is a lot of erosion occurring... it affects the water quality downstream. The Root River contributes an incredible amount of sediment to the Mississippi.

"The DNR fisheries crews do stream improvements in this watershed, but it's expensive, so it's going to cover a limited area... We wanted to find a reach where we could use a lower cost fix that in time we could scale up; not just do a quarter mile at a time. Maybe if this works and we put it in the right place, we could eventually do miles of this... stabilize stream banks by capturing sediment and then re-form the channel so it will have access to the flood plain. At the same time we can restore prairie. For example, when these invasive cedar trees were removed, that helped to restore bluff prairie just down the road.

"We're a biodiversity organization. We're interested in intact forest systems, bluff prairie remnants. It's the whole system that we're concerned with. Winona State has already begun a study of this project, which includes roughly 950 feet of stream bank that will have cedars installed. That way we'll be able to evaluate how well it works, not just trapping sediment, but phosphorous as well. Our goal is to get the stream to a condition where it's fairly stable.

"We recognize the need to work in the stream. We can't ignore it. We need to find a financially responsible way to do it."

WSU researchers have laid out "transects" (cross sections) of the stream corridor, which document where water, rock, sand, and soils now occur. They'll also monitor water quality. The goal is a relatively narrow stream with cold, clean water and banks that slope gradually towards the floodplain. When waters rise, deeply incised creeks cut into stream banks like a fire hose, causing erosion.

Loomis said that cedar revetments have been used successfully in Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Biske stated that the process costs $10 to $12 per linear foot, which is much cheaper than riprap. A possible downside is the time it takes to rebuild a stream bank with the more gradual process, which depends on a "feedback loop" that can take years.

Crew leader John Bunton said that his CC workers are mostly recent college grads, unlike most members of the original Civilian Conservation Corps of 1933-42. "Most of the folks here are 21 to 25," he noted. "They are in resource management, wildlife, or have some type of biology degree. They're kind of looking for that hands-on field experience before they go into their fields... It's kind of hard for them to find a job in natural resources without having some kind of background work in soil conservation. The corps is a great way to do that.

"We have people here from all over Minnesota and Wisconsin. I have one crewmember from Michigan, a couple from Illinois. In the past, we've had people from the east coast, also Kentucky, New Hampshire, all over.

"We do a lot of wildfire suppression, some prescribed burns in the spring. But this is our first time doing a cedar revetment project. It's kind of a whole new learning experience."

"When we take on projects like this, our members get to work with organizations like Minnesota DNR, the RRSWCD, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Forest Service. We've kind of a non-profit educational group. They show us the ropes.

"We can ask questions, such as; 'How do you go through your hiring process? How would we go about getting a job?' We get some work experience from them, and at the same time it kind of helps us along the road. We can even make some useful contacts at times. Some of these folks say 'Yeah, you can use me as a reference; you guys have done a great job."