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RSDP Happenings - Focus: Southwest Region

May 2013

Going wild with RSDP in Jackson County

Jackson County in southwestern Minnesota stretches along the Iowa border in what once was one of the largest expanses of tall grass prairie in North America. The region's rich soils have given rise to some of the most productive farmland in the country and its strong, steady winds have helped make Minnesota third in the nation for wind energy production.

Lakes, rivers and wetlands also dot the landscape, most notably Heron Lake, a 10,000-acre lake and wetland system that supports some of the richest biodiversity in the state.

"In a county plentiful with natural assets being harnessed for agriculture and energy, you'll find that our region is also still rich in 'wild' natural resources," says Chrystal Dunker, executive director of the Prairie Ecology Bus Center (PEBC), a non-profit, environmental learning center located just one mile from Heron Lake.

Helping residents appreciate their connections to the environment and natural resources - including the "wild" ones - is also a priority of the University of Minnesota Extension's Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP).

Last fall, PEBC approached the RSDP's Southwest Partnership to better connect University resources to its goal of creating a series of interpretive exhibits and upgrading classroom technology to help educators spread the message of long-term environmental stewardship.

RSDP's mission is to build community-University partnerships that strengthen and support Minnesota's small towns and rural areas by addressing community-identified needs in agriculture, natural resources and tourism in partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension. The PEBC project fosters regional resilience by supporting community-identified needs and opportunities, in this case, by working with PEBC to reach more residents with the message of ecosystem sustainability.

The match was perfect.

"The RSDP's Southwest Partnership has been serving rural Minnesota and supporting out of the box ideas that foster regional resilience for more than a decade," says Southwest Partnership executive director David Fluegel. "Formerly called the West Central Partnership with a 12-county range, our recent expansion to include more than 14 new counties in southwest Minnesota means we're able to bring University expertise and resources to areas previously without a University of Minnesota RSDP presence."

The PEBC is the first community partnership supported by the newly reconfigured Southwest Partnership.

At present, the PEBC operates out of a small farmhouse donated for use as office space, a newly acquired classroom facility in Sparks Park and a high-tech bus. The bus serves as a custom-built classroom and laboratory-on-wheels that cruises 20-plus counties in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa reaching more than 10,000 people and offering programming to more than 60 schools, community centers and youth groups each year. In addition to enhancing its educational programs, Dunker says the RSDP-supported exhibits will help attract more learners to PEBC's classroom facility, helping the center realize another step toward its goal of a bricks-and-mortar interpretive center.

Like Dunker, Fluegel believes that as people better understand their connections to nature they are motivated to protect and conserve natural resources and wild places. "RSDP aims to strengthen our communities through an appreciation of the environment and natural resources," says Fluegel. "Healthy ecosystems, along with strong economies and self-reliant communities are key to improving the lives of southern Minnesotans for decades to come."

For more information about the Prairie Ecology Bus Center, click here.

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