Naturalist Spotlight: Chris Weir-Koetter

What do you do? 

As a Resource Manager, I am basically in charge of managing the park lands from the North Dakota and Canadian borders to Bemidji and down to Starbuck – which amounts to 14 parks and 74,000 acres. My job is to protect our natural resources from invasive species. Minnesota has some pretty serious invaders, and we are trying to keep or restore the ecosystem to what it was when the white people settled here. It’s like a 1930s Model A – there’s a value there. But you have to restore it and then maintain it. The process isn’t the same as it was back then. We have to use what we have today to preserve what we had in the past. 

I have a well-trained crew of laborers that works with me throughout the season. Cindy Lueth is my very knowledgeable crew leader. She works 10 months of the year. We have botonist Mark Magnuson on staff for six months which helps because he is excellent with detail and can quickly identify the various species. Bob Horn is our mechanic and Blake Johnson is our fire expert. Our grasshopper intern this year is Ryan Anderson who is a GPS guru and helps us tremendously with mapping. Each of these crew members brings their own specialized knowledge to the group which keeps things rolling. 

How did you become a resource manager?

I started out as a naturalist intern at Itasca State Park. From there I became a Park Naturalist for Scenic State Park. I was a park manager for eight years at three different parks. Then a resource specialist position opened up. My college training focused on chemistry and biology, so managing our natural resources was ideal for me. I eventually became the Resource Manager for the northwest region of Minnesota. Along with my education, my family background has helped considerably in this line of work. Growing up on a farm, I know how to operate large machinery and back up trailers, etc. That really comes in handy.

What do you like about your job?

They pay me for it! For me it truly is a labor of love. This region has some of the best lands in the state (with four different biomes), and the fact that my work makes that land even better is an honor. Over the past 10 years, I have seen many changes – it is a real positive in achieving the goals we’ve set for our parks.

What are you working on right now?

We are spot-spraying leafy spurge at Glendalough State Park. Glendalough has natural prairie and oak savannas that we have been trying to restore. The leafy spurge is an invasive species that can have a 20 ft root system which makes it difficult to get rid of because prescribed burns don’t affect such a deep root penetration. Also the leafy spurge has a high germination rate. Its seed capsules explode from the plant shooting the seeds about 15 feet from its source which then rapidly spreads the species throughout the prairielands. 

With its milky white sap, this species is very persistent and hard to get rid of. So we come out here late spring/early summer after the burning season to spray these weeds. We’ve been doing this for a couple years now and are noticing a considerable reduction in the spread of this species.

What are some of the projects you have done in the past?

In the spring it’s weed control. Starting April 15 is the fire season.  Winter is when we plan our course of action to play off the way the various plants grow. In the spring we concentrate on the prairies, while the fall is when we focus on buckthorn. 

All the various species have a cycle that we work with to effectively eradicate the invasive plants, while protecting the native ones. For example, we spray for thistle in the fall when it’s drying down because it absorbs the herbicide better. By that time, the other plants are dormant, so they won’t be harmed. We are always very careful to only use appropriate methods of weed control specific to the species and environment.

Some of our other tasks throughout the year include harvesting seeds of native flowers and grasses and reseeding areas, reforestation – planting native species, harvesting non-native trees to restore the natural environment and erosion control.

What has been your most rewarding experience?

Working with young people who go on to do great things. Each year we try to have one or two interns on our crew, and I’m amazed at some of the things those individuals have gone on to do. Many of them are doing jobs that I never thought would happen when I hired them to do manual labor. My first intern is now in Antarctica studying fungus. 

Knowing your goals and achieving them – even if it’s not the way you planned – is also very rewarding. Seeing the positive change in the land is indescribable. I know that when I retire, I’ll feel like I did something worthwhile.

How can park visitors help? 

The best way people can help is by supporting the state parks. They can do that simply by visiting any of the parks. The land base for our state park system is quite small when you look at the state as a whole. Reserving land for parks, rather than developing it for private or commercial use, will help ensure that there will be parks for future generations. 

Taking kids out to the state parks is vital to sustaining the system. If kids don’t know the parks are there, they can’t value them. When they grow up, they won’t bring their kids. Finding ways to get our youth to the parks and show them the wonders of the woods and prairies can be far more rewarding than any other activity. 

State parks have “friends” groups who are strong advocates for the parks. Some help financially with fundraising efforts, but primarily they support the parks by helping out with events and getting the word out to folks that parks are a great asset to the state. Friends groups always welcome new members.

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