NEW LONDON, Minn. — Waterfowl hunters are famous for braving the weather, and that's a good thing for the hunters comprising the Prairie Pothole chapter of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association.
If the ever-so-popular Prairie Pothole Day is to return for a 38th season, they will have to overcome two perfect storms: The demise of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association, and the societywide decline in people joining organizations and volunteering.
The goal of the Prairie Pothole chapter of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association is to find a way to continue the annual event at Stony Ridge Farm outside of New London, according to LeRoy Dahlke, chapter president.
Chapter members will be meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 23, at Zorbaz to plan how they can continue the chapter and its activities. They are inviting people who have not been members of the chapter to join them as well. Because at the heart of it, if Prairie Pothole Day and other activities offered by the local chapter are to continue, more volunteers are needed.
“What we need is an influx of volunteers, there is no question about it,” Dahlke said. “We need 20 to 25 new people to get involved to help pick up some of the slack.”
Right now, a crew of 12 to 15 chapter members are doing all the heavy lifting. While the chapter has been able to recruit extra help on Prairie Pothole Day, there is a lot of preliminary work being done by only a handful of volunteers, Dahlke explained.
“The people involved now are doing the maximum amount that they can do,” he said.
Formed 37 years ago, the Prairie Pothole chapter has long been one of the most active in the Minnesota Waterfowl Association. It won honors as the Association’s chapter of the year in 2012.
Prairie Pothole Day has attracted crowds of over 4,000 in many of its years, and it is certainly the most visible and popular of the local chapter’s activities. But it is just a part of what this organization has meant for the area.
Since its start in 1983, the chapter has served as a partner in well over 100, probably close to 200, wetland and grassland restoration projects in the area. Much of its work is done in Kandiyohi County, as well as into parts of Meeker, Stearns, Pope and Swift counties.
Every spring, the local volunteers host a wood duck clinic at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center and help dozens of boys and girls and their parents build wood duck houses to place on the landscape. As part of the MWA, the local volunteers have also helped send many area youth to the weeklong Woodie Camp near Fergus Falls, where they learn about waterfowl, hunting and the outdoors.
Equally important, the chapter and its members have served as voices on behalf of conservation and the outdoors in the area. The local chapter and members spoke up for the Clean Water, Outdoors and Fine Arts Amendment when it went to the voters in 2008. Their extra effort is what it took to get the measure across the finish line here. Kandiyohi County, then part of legislative District 13B, supported the amendment by a slim margin, 51.5 percent.
The recent decision by the MWA to dissolve did not come as a surprise to Dahlke. He said its finances had been tight. When two chapters recently left the organization, he said it became clear. The financial resources just weren’t there to continue a statewide organization, which consisted of an executive director and administrative assistant.
The local chapter wants to continue its work, but now needs to figure out how best to go forward, Dahlke said. The statewide organization provided the liability insurance needed for Prairie Pothole Day. The statewide organization also provided the local chapter with tax exempt status for many of the purchases related to holding the event. That’s several thousands of dollars that the local group will have to come up with one way or another to continue as in the past, Dahlke pointed out.
Another challenge in hosting Prairie Pothole Day is a growing difficulty in attracting some of the vendors. It’s hard to know why for sure, but the chapter president guesses that more vendors are focusing on Internet sales, and are spending less time in booths at events.
And as noted, it just harder to find volunteers, especially those who are parents. They are involved with so many events involving their children, and it takes up what free time they have. “They aren’t looking for something extra to do,” said Dahlke.
On the other hand, he knows first hand how many young people and parents remain interested in the outdoors. The crowds at Prairie Pothole Day are all the evidence he needs.
It’d be easy to say it’s time to give up, but Dahlke said he’s hopeful the local chapter will find a way to go forward.
“If we can get more help, it won’t be necessary to give up," he said. "But it is critical to get more help, that’s for sure.”
If willing to help, attend Monday’s meeting, or let the chapter know of your interest by contacting Dahlke at 320-796-2787 or visit the Prairie Pothole chapter’s Facebook page.