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Surrounded by frac mine, Blair couple put farm in conservation

BLAIR, Wis. — The land around Mary Drangstveit’s farm is changing.

Earth movers and graders have replaced farm tractors and combines. Hillside has been stripped bare, lowlands filled with yellow soil. A silica sand mine is moving in.

“This was all farm fields,” she said, gesturing across the road. “It has become an unbelievable mess.”

But Drangstveit, 72, is determined to make her 120-acre hobby farm and home of 42 years an oasis amid the sand piles. On Wednesday, she signed a conservation easement, ensuring the land can’t be developed.

During the past decade, advances in a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — opened up vast stores of gas and oil in North America, spurring demand for fine-grained silica used in the process.

With its ample supply of sand and access to rail lines, Trempealeau County has been at the center of a frac sand mining boom. As of 2014, there were more than two dozen proposed or operating mines.

Leland Drangstveit said it was about four years ago that a neighbor drove up and told him a mine was coming and that the neighboring land would be annexed into the city.

“I thought, ‘Who the hell are you?’ ” Drangstveit said.

Then last fall, neighbors started selling — for big bucks.

A one-acre parcel went for $300,000; one six-acre site fetched $850,000. A 70-acre farm: $3 million. All told, the Houston-based company paid out nearly $24.6 million for 1,152 acres, according to state property records — more than 4.5 times the statewide average value for farmland.

Today, the Drangstveit farm is girded on three sides by mine property.

Leland, 76, who served 20 years in the Air Force before retiring from Boeing, says he understands why people without comfortable pension incomes would jump at the money.

Mary still has hard feelings.

She said Hi-Crush offered to buy her home and 10 acres at fair market value but wasn’t interested in the farm. Not that she would have sold it.

“You can offer me $5 million today,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t be swayed.

Hi-Crush company officials did not return voice mail messages left Wednesday.

A retired nurse, Drangstveit lives about 2.5 miles from downtown Blair, though annexation of the mine has brought the city limits right to her mailbox. Hi-Crush is the third such site annexed into the city, a move that exempts the mine from county ordinances governing things like hours of operation.

Related: Controversial Minnesota frac sand mine gets day in appeals court

Blair Mayor Ardell Knutson said he’s not had many complaints, although many mine neighbors — like the Drangstveits — aren’t city residents.

“There’ve been a few things. It’s not been too bad,” he said. “Traffic I guess. Some people don’t like change, you know.”

The farm, where Drangstveit has lived since 1973, once supported a small herd of beef cattle. Today there are about 65 acres of hayfields, which the family rents out.

Towering oak and pine trees shade the home, built in the 1860s, but the beeping and clanging of heavy machinery filters into the yard. Mary said she hears the boom of rail cars being moved in the middle of the night, and she complains about the increased traffic in front of the home.

Still, the Drangsveits don’t want to leave.

“You can’t go out and buy a place like this,” said Leland, who grew up in Blair and married Mary after he returned in the 1990s.

Over the winter, Mary said, she was eating breakfast in town when someone handed her the name of the Mississippi Valley Conservancy. She’d never heard of it, but after some research she contacted the La Crosse-based nonprofit organization, which has preserved more than 16,000 acres of land through purchases and conservation agreements.

She was sold.

Metal signposts rattled in the back of the pickup as Leland drove the perimeter of the hayfields one recent afternoon. Mary planned to put up signs identifying the land as protected as soon as she got home from signing the easement.

Mary said she signed the agreement to ensure that her grandchildren — and someday their children — have a chance to experience rural life, “not only because I’m bull-headed.”

She also wants to preserve the land for the wildlife it supports.

“They’re not making any more land,” she said, adding that she feels compelled to “tend it and protect it.”

Game cameras in the surrounding woods have captured sparring trophy bucks, grouse, coyotes, black bear, bobcat and even a badger. Michigan lilies, meadowsweet, blue vervain and Culver’s root bloom in the spring-fed wetlands, attracting bees and at least three species of butterfly. According to the MVC, the land provides habitat for threatened species such as the blue winged warbler, sedge wren and whippoorwill as well as the northern long-eared bat.

“It’s an absolute wildlife haven,” said Abbie Church, conservation director for the MVC. “Her land will now serve as a sanctuary for these species.”

Church said that’s increasingly important as the surrounding habitat is transformed into sand piles.

Mary said traffic at her bird feeders has skyrocketed since the mine began construction.

“They have nowhere else to go,” she said.

MVC executive director Carol Abrahamzon said the proximity to the mine makes the Drangstveit farm an especially important site for conservation.

“That’s why this is such an amazing story. None of that around her could take place unless her neighbors sold their place and got tons of money,” she said. “(Mary) feels so strongly that this habitat she has created is so important for the wildlife … It will always be habitat.”

With the conservation easement, Drangstveit can pass the land on to her daughter. It can be sold but not developed.

“It’s a beautiful thing that we can pass this on,” Mary said. “I came from a farm family. That’s something you can’t reproduce. You’ll have millions of dollars, but you’ll never have land.”

This article was written by Chris Hubbuch from La Crosse Tribune, Wis. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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