Alternative energy plans a boost to wildlife habitat

Indian grass
Indian grass and other native plants can offer both habitat for wildlife and a source of biofuels.
Photo by Jim Brandenburg

It wouldn't seem that bioenergy has much to do with hunting and fishing in Minnesota, but that's not the way the state Department of Natural Resources sees it.

DNR officials sense that bioenergy will be a big part of Minnesota's future. More land will be used to raise crops to create renewable energy, and the DNR wants to make sure that doesn't hurt the state's environment and wildlife habitat.

Conservationists should have a say in how the future of bioenergy plays out in the state, according to Steve Hirsch with the DNR's ecological resources division.

"We're talking about taking that plant material and growing it commercially on farms. It's a great win-win if we take into account those multiple benefits."

"Are we going to be at the table and help direct this, so we can have mutual benefits for fish and wildlife while we try to solve some of our energy needs? Or is it going to be done without us at the table with no concern for conservation?" Hirsch asks. "That's why we're trying to get very involved with this issue."

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A major push from the conservation-minded is to invest more in researching the use of grasses, like switchgrass and prairie grass, instead of corn to make ethanol.

Jim Kleinschmit with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis says a field of prairie grass creates a home for wildlife, a filter for runoff, and doesn't require the fertilization needed to grow corn.

"We know how to grow grass, we know how to turn it into energy, and we know it also sequesters carbon underground. And it creates habitat, and cleans up water quality. Now we're talking about taking that plant material and growing it commercially on farms. It's a great win-win if we take into account those multiple benefits," says Kleinschmit.

Kleinschmit says if society puts a dollar figure on the conservation of wildlife habitat and clean water, then using prairie grass for energy production will win out over corn.

He acknowledges it will take years for farmers to make the transition from growing a crop like corn to raising prairie grass as a source of energy.

Prairie grass
Some prairie grasses have evolved an advanced form of photosynthesis. Genetic manipulation could make the plants grow larger.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

Farm Bureau representative Paul Stark says while farmers are concerned about the environment and the impact that crops have on the soil and water, the one thing that drives what they grow is profit.

"Farmers will produce whatever they can to make a profit. Farming will not continue as it has in the past 40, 50 years," Stark says. "We've had cheap energy, we've had cheap inputs, we've had cheap labor, we've had cheap whatever. And now we're really getting down to the nitty gritty where we may run out of energy as we know it, and we will produce something providing it's profitable."

Stark says while some older farmers are interested in raising new crops for energy, it's the next generation of farmers who may fully embrace their role providing the country with cleaner energy in the future.