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Nonprofit looks to expand land restoration work in southern Minnesota
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The snow has melted, and soon greenery will pop up and rivers will flow, welcoming an array of wildlife back to the area. Southern Minnesotans can do their part in ensuring habitat is available for flora and fauna.

Great River Greening is looking for volunteer supervisors to lead groups of five to 20 volunteers through ecological restoration events held in the region. Activities such as planting native flowers, trees and shrubs, as well as removing invasive plants, will help restore the land.

“The supervisors like the connection that they get with the volunteers a lot,” said Amy Kilgore, GRG outreach program manager. “There’s always something super rewarding about teaching and seeing people learn, and inspiring them in that way.”

GRG is a nonprofit organization that hosts community-based restoration projects on-site from the headwaters of the Mississippi River through the Anoka Sand Plain to the Twin Cities metro and down into southern Minnesota.

The organization holds large scale habitat restoration events on public lands and natural areas, relying mostly on volunteers to get the work done. In a typical season, GRG hosts six to eight volunteer events both in the spring and in the fall, totaling around 18 to 20 events in a year.

Pre-pandemic restoration events could see anywhere between 100 to 200 participants, but have since been scaled back, with an event participation cap around 30 and designating volunteers into staggered shifts. Activities include planting native plugs to enhance biodiversity and creating healthy habitats, as well as removing invasive species like Buckthorn.

“That’s usually the first step, to get these invasive out and then we can come back in and do habitat maintenance or enhancement with native plants,” Kilgore said.

Volunteers participate in a seeding event at the Big Woods Heritage Forest Wildlife Management Area in Lonsdale. Great River Greening is currently looking for volunteer supervisors. “Supervisors are passionate about the outdoors and the environment and they share that passion with other volunteers and the general community,” said Amy Kilgore, GRG outreach program manager. (Photo courtesy of Manu June Photography)

Those interested in becoming in a volunteer supervisor position are asked to attend spring training from 10 a.m. to noon, March 20 via Zoom. During the training, prospective supervisors will learn more about GRG’s background, mission and different leadership skills, while focusing on teachable moments to engage small groups of volunteers during the event. Scientific and natural resources knowledge is beneficial, but not necessary, according to Kilgore.

Those interested in continuing the volunteer supervisor process will then be invited to participate in field day training from 10 a.m. to noon, March 27. Participants will be seeding at Sunktokeca Creek Wildlife Management Area located northwest of Faribault or Dora Lake WMA west of Faribault.

“It’s gonna be a field day for those newly trained supervisors to kind of connect in person with one another and with Great River Greening staff, just to get a little more of a hands-on feel for what we’re doing and get additional background to the work that we are doing in southern Minnesota,” Kilgore said.

Kilgore hopes supervisors sign up to attend at least one event per season to keep them engaged with restoration work and occasionally retrain. Prior to the events, volunteer supervisors will get additional information about the specific restoration activity and should plan to arrive early to go over last-minute details with GRG staff. The supervisor will help divide volunteers into smaller units to work on specific tasks. Kilgore wants supervisors to feel confident and supported in their work, so that confidence can be translated to community volunteers.

“Becoming a supervisor is a really great way to connect with other supervisors, volunteers and a great way to connect with the natural area in your community,” Kilgore said. “Some of these spots, especially in southern Minnesota, that we are working on are lesser known, they are not big regional parks, a lot of them are wildlife management areas.”

Even if southern Minnesota residents aren’t interested in taking on a leadership role, they can participate as community volunteers. Event volunteers will divide into staggered shifts to allow for greater social distancing and are required to wear face coverings.

In April, GRG will host a tree planting event at Big Woods Heritage Forest WMA near Lonsdale, with plans to plant 3,500 trees, Kilgore said. GRG has been working on the site for a couple of years, according to Kilgore. Volunteers are working to restore the land to its original pasture state prior to the land being cleared for agriculture. A team of volunteers helped seed the WMA last fall.

“It’s going to look really different eventually,” Kilgore said.

A volunteer works at a seeding event at Big Woods Heritage Forest Wildlife Management Area in Lonsdale. (Photo courtesy of Manu June Photography)

Kilgore hopes GRG events expose people to green spaces and build a sense of responsibility to the environment. Volunteers will be making a difference, Kilgore said, highlighting that volunteers who return will be able to see the environmental benefits of their work from previous events.

Today GRG is looking to build a network of volunteers and partners further into southern Minnesota. Kilgore anticipates as the organization grows, and the pandemic subsides, that the organization will offer opportunities in other areas of southern Minnesota, including the Minneopa State Park, Seven Mile Creek area and other lesser known areas in southern Minnesota.

“We’re really kind of building that network of work down in southern Minnesota now,” Kilgore said. “Our goal is to connect with local community members, so we try to do targeted outreach and networking through partners like the Cannon River Watershed folks, to schools, to colleges and corporations, things like that to try to get as many people engaged.”

Reach reporter Ashley Rezachek at 507-444-2376. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.{/div}

Committee approves bill strengthening penalties for deadly force assault of police officers
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The Senate’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday approved a bill chief authored by Senator John Jasinski, R-Faribault, that strengthens state criminal penalties for individuals who are convicted of assault that causes great bodily harm to a police officer, judge, prosecutor, or correctional officer.

The legislation increases the maximum sentence from 20 to 25 years for great bodily harm, and if the assault causes great bodily harm and was committed with deadly force or using a dangerous weapon, from 20 to 30 years. In either case, a perpetrator would serve a longer mandatory minimum sentence in prison. The bill is in honor of Officer Arik Matson, a Waseca police officer who was nearly killed in the line of duty last January. Officer Matson and his wife, Megan, testified on behalf of the bill.

“We are extremely grateful for Minnesota’s police officers who put their lives on the line, in the hardest of circumstances, to keep us safe,” said Jasinski. “This is a common sense, pro-public safety measure that honors Officer Matson’s service — and the service of every law enforcement officer — by showing the community’s strong support for police and the tough work they do every day.”

“We continue on what we know is a long journey to healing and recovery. This legislation will bring a higher level of justice to horrific situations involving criminals that try to take the lives of our loved ones – officers that put it all on the line,” said Megan Matson, Arik Matson’s wife.

Jasinski, Matson, Rep. John Petersburg and others participated in a press conference announcing the bill in January. Watch the press conference at bit.ly/38sEttW.

Video of Wednesday’s hearing can be found at youtube.com/watch?v=t3VxDavKX9I.

The bill was referred to the Finance Committee, where it awaits a hearing.

Waseca County likely has COVID variants, public health director says
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Waseca County Public Health Director Sarah Berry said officials “strongly suspect” the new COVID-19 variants are nearby.

There has been a “very significant” amount of cases in neighboring Blue Earth County recently and there’s concern a variant that causes COVID-19 to be more contagious is causing the uptick, she told the Waseca County Board Tuesday.

“We just haven’t been able to document it just yet,” she said.

In recent weeks, the Minnesota Department of Health has confirmed that COVID-19 variants originating in South Africa, Brazil and the United Kingdom are in the state. The state announced an outbreak of the UK variant in Carver County in the southwest Twin Cities earlier this month.

Waseca County’s COVID-19 incidence rate is on the high end compared to other southern Minnesota counties at 30 cases per 10,000 residents and it’s been hovering around that number for several weeks, Berry said. The rate means that about 60 Waseca County residents have COVID-19 at any given time and 60 people are spreading it to 60 people every week.

“It may not seem like a lot, but it is enough that if we get a variant in our community, and we likely will, that number will shoot up rapidly because that many people means it could easily double or triple the number who are sick if they are actively spreading something that is very easily transmissible,” Berry said.

The one-year mark

“It’s been a really long year,” Berry said. “We have been in full pandemic response for that entire year.”

Waseca County has had 2,112 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began and 19 residents have died of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Berry said the number of confirmed cases is likely lower than the real number of cases that have occurred in the county due to the lack of access to testing early on in the pandemic. She said they’ve also heard anecdotally that some families only had one person tested and then assumed that the rest of the family members were also infected.

The county’s largest peak of cases occurred right before Thanksgiving, she said. The county has had only a few outbreaks associated with an event or place and those outbreaks aren’t due to the event occurring. Rather, it’s spreading when people are close together in places like the parking lot before or after the event, she said.

Most of the county Public Health Department’s response to the pandemic in the past year has focused on communicating information to the community, she said.

Eight of the 13 public health staff have had significant life events such as a birth, death of a parent or cancer diagnosis in their family in the past year while also handling the pandemic, Berry said. That would be trying in normal circumstances, but the pandemic has made it a stressful year for the staff, she said.

“They are doing fabulous. They are really burned out even without incurring significant overtime. They’re really stretched. They’re doing amazing, amazing work, but it has been a marathon,” she said.

COVID-19 vaccinations continue

Berry said it’s “wonderful” to see so many in the community receive COVID-19 vaccines.

As of Monday, 23.1% of Minnesotans and 22.9% of Waseca County residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Most of the 4,300 vaccines administered in Waseca County have been done through pharmacies, she said. The county Public Health Department has administered 1,300 of those doses.

“Vaccine clinic is probably our most rewarding day,” Berry said. “The prep can be really stressful when we’re telling them they’re not eligible or we don’t have room in the clinic, that can be really stressful, but it does make up for it when we are able to vaccinate folks who have been desperately waiting.”

Waseca County Public Health receives its vaccinations directly from the supply the state receives from the federal government. Berry said they’ve realized they can handle about 400 vaccines at a weekly clinic before they’re maxed out of space and staff at the clinic. The county typically receives its vaccine doses on Tuesday for a clinic on either Wednesday or Thursday.

Public Health is currently vaccinating workers at food processing facilities. Once that tier is done, the county will move onto the next tier. The county differs from pharmacies in who they can vaccinate because pharmacies can vaccinate a broader group and that’s caused some confusion in the community, Berry said.

Minnesota will be vaccinating Phase 1b-tiers 2 and 3 for a few more weeks because 1.8 million Minnesotans fall into those categories, Berry said. She said she anticipates that there won’t be many Waseca County residents who haven’t been vaccinated by the time vaccinations open to the general public.

The state’s Vaccine Connector at mn.gov/covid19/vaccine/connector is a good resource for knowing when to receive a vaccine and it’s mostly focused on vaccinations provided by pharmacies and health care providers. She also encourages residents to call the county Public Health Department at 507-835-0690 if they have questions.

County attorney appealing sex offender sentence

The Waseca County Attorney’s Office is appealing the sentencing of a Waseca man convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor.

Timothy John Wright, 40, was sentenced Dec. 15 to 15 years of probation by Judge Carol M. Hanks after pleading guilty to one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a victim under 16 and under 13 who he had a significant relationship with. The abuse occurred in both Waseca and Steele counties over the span of a decade.

Following the sentencing, Waseca County Attorney Rachel Cornelius said she was surprised with the sentencing handed down by Hanks because the October plea agreement entered was for 168 months – or 14 years – in prison.

“We are not happy with the judge’s decision nor were the victims,” Cornelius said in December. “Everyone thought he was going to prison that day – including the defendant himself.”

On Friday, Cornelius’ office formally filed a sentencing appeal with the Office of Appellate Courts. Court documents show the issue proposed to be raised on appeal is the sentence lower than state guidelines call for.

Wright was charged June 15 with 15 counts of criminal sexual conduct, seven of which were first-degree and the remaining second-degree charges. Wright originally pleaded not guilty to all 15 charges, but amended his plea in October to guilty to one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct following an agreement to have the other charges dismissed.

In her report, Hanks cited several reasons for departing from state guidelines, including no prior criminal history, that Wright had been a model inmate in the jail, was capable of employment and has seven children to support, and psychosexual evaluations indicate he is amenable to outpatient sex offender treatment.

Hanks also noted in the report that Wright showed remorse and accepted responsibility for his actions.

According to the original criminal complaint, a detective with the Waseca Police Department learned in June of a past sexual assault by Wright. The court documents read that Wright had abused both victims when they were 7 or 8 and that the abuse continued for several years.

Both victims were assaulted by Wright in Steele and Waseca counties.