Pheasants Forever's Minnesota origin story comes full circle
Forty years ago the Minnesota founders of Pheasants Forever — from the metropolitan area and from Kandiyohi County — met on the shores of Eagle Lake north of Willmar and agreed to the local control model that the organization continues today. The surviving founders of that meeting returned to Eagle Lake to visit about the organization's start and how they made that critical decision.
WILLMAR — The call heard across the grasslands of Minnesota was made by outdoors writer Dennis Anderson in a March 7, 1982, column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch.
After years of watching his favorite pheasant hunting lands disappear to crop production in western Minnesota, the writer put out a call to work together for habitat restoration and protection. It led to the formation of today’s Pheasants Forever.
Forty years after putting out that call, Anderson and surviving founders of Pheasants Forever reunited Aug. 13 at Doug and Sue Lovander’s place on the shores of Eagle Lake, just north of Willmar. It’s where a pivotal moment in the origin of Pheasants Forever occurred.
Founders of the first Pheasants Forever chapter in the Twin Cities met with Lovander and his Kandiyohi County buddies who had organized the first outstate group. The urban and rural groups came to an agreement that shaped the future of the new organization: Local chapters would decide how the funds they raised would be spent on local projects.
That formula is credited with the success of Pheasants Forever, which today counts more than130,000 members and more than 750 chapters in 40 states. It’s the only national conservation organization based on that model of local control.
Lovander, known to many as “the governor,” had originally answered Anderson’s call by telephoning him to say he was putting together a group in Kandiyohi County. His group would be the first outstate chapter.
“I was getting a lot of calls from crack people,” said Anderson, explaining he had initially answered Lovander’s call with some skepticism.
Others had already called him with all kinds of big offers. Anderson was lured to one caller’s “fundraiser” only to find a few guys gathered around a case of beer in a small house, he said.
He responded to Lovander’s phone call with some caution.
“Do you hunt pheasants a lot,” Anderson said he asked Lovander.
“I do my own August (roadside) counts,” Lovander said he responded.
Kandiyohi County’s founding members were soon to do much more. They hosted the first outstate banquet.
Lovander committed the upfront money for a minimum of 200 meals at the Kandi Entertainment Center in Willmar. Friends, including Lee Wierschem, went to work selling tickets, unsure of their prospects.
They sold 484 tickets, according to a front-page West Central Tribune story about the chapter’s first banquet held in April 1983.
Thanks to the event, Lovander controlled a pot of more than $20,000.
He pitched a large canvas tent on his land along Eagle Lake and invited Anderson and his co-founders to meet with the outstate group. From the start, Lovander insisted that the money belonged to the local chapter for local projects, and he wasn’t about to turn it over.
“He kept saying because he is who he is, ‘why should we give you the money,’” said Anderson as they revisited those days at Lovander’s place.
Anderson said that by the time he drove to Eagle Lake, he was already resigned to the concept that local chapters would control their own funds.
Yet to hear Anderson’s description of the event, there was some drama to it.
With a grin, he said Lovander wore a pair of aviator glasses in the dark of a large “circus tent,” and had his “lieutenants” strategically located on the other side of the table when the “three little city guys” stepped under the canopy.
Local decision-making authority was key to everything for the outstate members, said Lovander.
“If it hadn’t gone that way, no way could I have kept my crew together,” he said.
From there, the message of Pheasants Forever spread like prairie fire, but only because there were many who carried it to wherever they could. The original founders gave up their free time to visit communities across the state and chat on radio shows and visit with newspaper reporters.
There was a lot of learning ahead, too. The founders shared jokes about some of their early-day missteps.
Some of the first Pheasants Forever banquets featured roast pheasant, which chefs always served up tough as shoe leather. At one event, the first raffle ticket winner received a chainsaw for a prize, and the emcee pointed out that at least one lucky son-of-a-gun would be able to eat his bird.
That emcee might just have been Bill Farmer, a humorist who started coming to Pheasants Forever banquets dressed in drag. Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant, Gov. Rudy Perpich and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Alexander are among the many dignitaries who attended the events in support of the young organization.
Anderson said his original motivation to organize what he termed a “pheasant club” had everything to do with the loss of habitat he was witnessing. Lovander said habitat was absolutely the motivation for him and his hunting pals as well. They were waterfowl hunters at heart, but knew the importance of upland habitat, they said.
Anderson said the tipping point that led him to write his column calling for action came during a visit with Commissioner Alexander.
Anderson lamented the loss of pheasant habitat and expressed his desire to see something done. Alexander told the outdoors writer that he believed there would always be vestiges of pheasants in the state, but as a sporting bird in Minnesota, pheasants were done.
“Pissed me off,” said Anderson, adding that his frustration over the comment led him to act. Alexander got on board too: He was among the featured speakers at the first Pheasants Forever gathering in Willmar in 1983.
The early work of Pheasants Forever was rewarded with the formation of local chapters, legislation creating the pheasant stamp for hunting in Minnesota to generate revenue for habitat, and advocating for and helping enroll acres in the Conservation Reserve Program.
As for Kandiyohi County, it remains a leader in Pheasants Forever. Since its start, the chapter has raised more than $7 million.