Fields, Rivers & Stream (May column) — A tall, bearded and boisterous man showed up at my desk in 2004, demanding action on what seemed an impossible task for conservation.
I only was a few weeks into my job with Mower Soil & Water Conservation District and wanted to help the local farmer with his idea for a wetland restoration in Lansing Township. Yet, it seemed to have almost no potential for getting launched.
Dwight Ault, however, had a passion for conservation that was infectious and a highly determined resolve for moving forward with his plans.
While this approach didn’t always keep our relationship smooth, Dwight and I became good friends while working for years on his idea that eventually became reality in 2015 when Mower SWCD and partners constructed the most-complex project in our office’s 65-year history.
Last week, our watershed community lost a great conservationist and person with the passing of Dwight Ault at age 87. A farmer, former Mower SWCD board member (1985–1990) and avid member of the Izaak Walton League, Dwight dedicated his life to bettering our natural resources.
Dwight grew up as a farm kid in the heart of Iowa. He loved to share stories about the small farm traditions that his family instilled in him from a young age.
He loved the family farm and all that was represented by it.
I hung on to those stories as if I was looking back on a photo album, soaking up the culture of the “greatest generation.” I had great respect for his family’s approach to making the farm successful on the heels of the Great Depression and during World War II.
One of my favorites stories often told by Dwight began with him setting the scene of him in his younger years. It was a time when he was too naïve to fully understand the challenges and struggles of adult life yet old enough to respect a man for taking a stand.
This was an era when wetlands and habitat were nothing more than mosquito havens and nuisance areas. Dwight’s father, however, stood up to his neighbors and friends to halt the draining of a major slough near his family’s farm.
With machinery on site, the Ault family rallied to find alternatives that would preserve the wetlands and keep them from becoming part of the 98 percent of natural wetlands that have been drained since the early 1900s.
The actions by Dwight’s father left a mark on him that would influence Dwight for the next 75 years of his life and inspire people like me in my conservation work for years to come.
This influence pushed me back in 2004 to work on his impossible wetland project without the necessary money, conservation program or neighborhood support. With Dwight’s passion, however, we started the journey anyway and spent nine years plugging away at it.
During those years, Dwight often stopped by the Mower SWCD office and filled the room with his laughter, quick wit and unique sayings.
As we worked through the arduous details of his project, Dwight filled our time with stories of the farm, his time in military service and his highly determined father.
Hearing those stories about his father’s determination made me smile every time, mostly because they reminded me of the stubborn but compassionate virtues that I appreciated so much in Dwight.
About five years ago, things started to fall into place with Dwight’s project, and what had seemed to be the impossible was becoming possible. A series of steps had come together and forces out of our control had begun to work in our favor.
Since its completion, the Ault-Penkava project has served as a shining example in Minnesota of local, state and federal agencies collaborating to do a complex project. It not only restored wetlands but also created a water-control structure for flood reduction and improved water quality in the Cedar River Watershed.
Many factors went into this success story but none of it would have happened without the extraordinary vision and determination of Mr. Dwight Ault.
Dwight will be missed greatly by me and many others who had the pleasure of getting to know him. His conservation legacy will live on out at that restored wetland site north of Austin and in those he inspired.
Mower SWCD provides technical assistance to landowners with conservation practices that protect land and water resources. SWCD also performs the duties of the Cedar River Watershed District to improve water quality and reduce flooding. More information is available on the Mower SWCD and CRWD websites and Facebook pages. Questions and comments can be sent to email@example.com.