Justin Hanson: Dolphin’s leadership will be missed

Published 10:17 am Thursday, August 25, 2016

By Justin Hanson

Fields, Rivers and Streams

When I moved 11 years ago to Austin to work for the Mower Soil & Water Conservation District, I reached out to local officials to start building a network of people whom I could collaborate with on water-resource projects.

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This typically involves agency contacts and the kind of folks who have money, expertise and a mutual interest in building projects.

Justin Hanson is the district manager of the Mower Soil & Water Conservation

Justin Hanson is the district manager of the Mower Soil & Water Conservation

My training led me to believe that the only way to make a difference on the land was to build projects and “move dirt.” It didn’t take long, however, to see a different perspective after being introduced to Larry Dolphin, an enthusiastic naturalist who would challenge and enlighten me on the importance of community connection and education.

Larry has helped me realize that “moving dirt” is not the primary way to protect our natural resources. That needs to come from each of us individually doing our part to be stewards of the land and water.

Next Wednesday (Aug. 31), Larry will retire after 28 years as the director of Austin’s Jay C. Hormel Nature Center, a natural gem in our region.

I don’t recall the title Larry went by when he first introduced himself to me. I clearly remember, though, thinking that he was leading a lot of efforts for his position and I suspected that was something that could get him in over his head.

Larry would get involved with many projects outside of his work responsibilities, including with the Austin chapter of the Izaak Walton League, but he always has followed through and exceeded expectations on those projects.

Larry has an infectious, positive disposition backed by an unmistakable passion for all things nature. He is transparent in his beliefs and willing to share his passion with anyone. That enthusiastic delivery and ability to teach all ages has benefited all of us who have been lucky enough to cross paths with Larry.

I gained an immediate appreciation for Larry’s work, and it’s hard not to respect someone who puts so much of themselves into their work. He also has been supportive of projects I’ve worked on and respectful of my approach.

In my time here, Larry has led several efforts to expand the nature center, restoring large tracts of farm land into high-quality native prairie. He has incorporated water-quality improvement projects on site through streambank stabilization and wetland preservation projects. He has been part of the Austin Vision 2020 Waterways Committee’s efforts to enhance water recreation and improve water quality, educating the group on the importance of watershed management.

Larry also has started an annual, summer Water Festival at the nature center that includes a river cleanup, storm drain marking, and other water-quality activities.

His catch phrase — “We all live downstream” — gives a powerful message in a simplified way.

Most importantly, Larry has cemented a legacy of conservation with an entire generation of students from Mower County and beyond. It’s incredible to think of all the people he has influenced through his education programs.

In his career, thousands of students have learned from Larry as he helped them scoop the nature center’s ponds for aquatic life; explore its acres of native oak savanna prairie; paddle Dobbins Creek; learn how to cross-country ski; make bird calls; do maple syruping; and much more.

Austin and our surrounding area have a little bit different approach and appreciation to natural resources. There is a number of different data sets that suggest Austin, Mower County and our surrounding area certainly has a greater appreciation for water quality than similar areas in southern Minnesota. I often wonder why. What sets this area apart and why are our citizens more engaged, better educated and more involved in water-resource management?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Larry and his many years of conservation education have played an important part in that community “buy in.”

Larry has been an institution at the nature center and the Austin community, and he will not be replaced easily. His legacy certainly will live on in many ways.

Mower SWCD provides technical assistance to landowners with conservation practices that protect land and water resources. SWCD also administers the Cedar River Watershed District to improve water quality and reduce flooding. This column runs monthly on the last Thursday. For more, visit the Mower SWCD and CRWD websites and Facebook pages. Comments can be sent to tim.ruzek@mowerswcd.org.

Justin Hanson is the manager of the Mower Soil & Water Conservation District and administrator of the Cedar River Watershed District .