The Millerís story, a story of unselfish conservation, is rare these days, these days when the economic value of land is high and peopleís connection with the land is low. Their former farm has been converted to two wildlife management areas. One is called the Salem Community Wildlife Management Area. The other is called the Spring Lea Farm Wildlife Management Area. Both are small islands of public land in a sea of private farmland in southern Stearns County along County Road 33, north of Paynesville.
The Millerís story begins 134 years ago. Thatís when Frederick Miller, Rickís great-grandfather, arrived in America. A native of northern Germany, Frederick settled 160 acres northeast of Paynesville in 1864. Frederick loved his new land. He passed this passion on to his son, Gustav. Gustav passed the passion on to his son, Orion. Rick, the great-grandson, who four generations later would give the land away, was instilled with the passion, too.
ďUnlike my ancestors, I never aspired to be a farmer,Ē said Rick, an insurance specialist. ďStill, I had the same feelings for the land that my father and his father had. They believed we do not own the land but are merely stewards of it during our time on Earth. This philosophy made sense to me from the very beginning. I have tried to pass this land ethic on to my children as well.Ē
Rick and Connie bought the family farm in 1979. They rented the crop land, raised their children, and lived the life that so many live-one foot in the city, one foot in the joys of rural America. Gradually, times changed. The kids got older. Career decisions had to be made. A number of factors came together. In 1995, they moved to St. Cloud.
ďWe had to make the decision when we moved,Ē recalled Connie Miller. ďOur decision was to donate the land to the people of Minnesota. We both felt it was more soul-fulfilling than putting money in the bank.Ē
To do this, the Millers worked with Mike Maurer, the Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager. Maurer handled the donation process, receiving assistance from Stearns County Pheasants Forever and the Paynesville Sportsmenís Club. Before long the 117 acres that had been the Millers, was everyones. Today, if you stand on the land on an autumn day, youíll see prairie grass waving in the wind. Youíll see a slight stream cut through a swail. Youíll see layers of life that may not seem special but are-the soil, the insects, the plants, the animals, each layer dependent upon the layer below it.
ďThe Millers have left a wonderful legacy in the Salem Community,Ē said Maurer. ďThe land their family loved is open for all to enjoy, both now and forever. Thatís a rare and special gift.Ē
The two wildlife management areas are located in Zion Township just east and west of County Road 33. One is just across the road from Salem Cemetery, where the Millers are buried among the Schmidts, Krupkes, Heitkes, and others of this old-time German enclave. The other property is just to the east.
ďI suspect what I learned most from my family is that land is not just soil,Ē said Miller. ďInstead, it is what the conservationist Aldo Leopold said it is: a circuit of soils, plants, and animals that we as a society have a responsibility to keep healthy. Our donation speaks to that spirit and we hope people will enjoy it.Ē
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