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Lake Country Faces: Ideal man recognized for conservation efforts

Jim Brandt, of rural Pine River, dedicates much of his retirement to conservation efforts on three islands - Big, Little and Steamboat - in Upper Whitefish Lake. Brandt was recently honored as Crow Wing Soil and Water District’s Outstanding Conservationist for 2017. Theresa Bourke / Echo Journal

Jim Brandt prides himself on his extensive conservation efforts.

Crow Wing County has taken notice too.

Brandt, of Ideal Township, is the most recent winner of the Crow Wing County Soil and Water Conservation District's Outstanding Conservationist award.

The award honors Brandt for the conservation work he has done on the three islands in Upper Whitefish Lake - Big, Little and Steamboat islands.

As a member of the Joint Powers Board of the Rollie Johnson Natural and Recreational Area, Brandt helps manage the islands and surrounding water by doing restoration and repair projects.

"We're proud of the lakes - the Whitefish Chain - and we're proud of the islands out there," he said. "So we try to make sure that people understand and know the background of the islands out there."

The conservationist said his main goal is to keep the islands in their original, natural states as much as possible. For example, instead of removing trees that might fall during storms, Brandt and other organization members just move trees out of the trails but keep them on the islands to rot and enrich the soil.

Though Brandt's award proves his dedication to the environment, this kind of work is fairly new to him. He and his wife of 54 years, Jackie, are originally from St. Paul. The high school sweethearts started their lives together in the Twin Cities area, where Brandt worked for Northern States Power - now Xcel Energy - for 37 years. They moved to Elk River in 1974, when Brandt moved up to plant manager at the Sherburne County Generating Plant.

The couple began vacationing at Black Pine Beach Resort with their family in the 1980s. After befriending the Scharenbroichs - who own Black Pine Beach - and learning about the conservation efforts of Rollie Johnson, the Brandts thought about staying.

"We got to talking, and we said, 'Well you know, maybe we'll move up here some time,'" Brandt said.

In 1993, they bought their own cabin on Upper Whitefish Lake, not far from the islands, and in 2000 it became the couple's permanent residence.

But moving to the lakes area meant the Brandts needed a proper outdoor education.

"We always lived in a city or small towns ... and when we came up here, we really weren't very familiar with the lakes," Brandt said. "They had classes that were put on for how lakes age and talking about how you need to take care of them and water quality, so Jackie and I would go to all of them. And then we realized that we need to take care of the lakes."

Brandt soon got involved with the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association and the Big Island volunteer group. He is now chair of the Joint Powers Board of the Rollie Johnson Natural and Recreational Area and dedicates countless hours to island monitoring and restoration.

"It takes up a lot of time, but it is absolutely a lot of fun," he said. "Big Island is a wonderful group of people. We all work together. One person only does one little piece."

And Brandt's "little piece" didn't go unnoticed, as his recent award shows.

"I had no idea," he said of being named Outstanding Conservationist. "Melissa Barrick (district manager of Crow Wing County SWCD) called me down to Crow Wing Soil and Water and said, 'Hey, Jim, come down. We'd like you to meet with our board.' ... So I go down there and they said, 'Well, we've nominated you for conservationist of the year.'"

Along with his award, Brandt was one of eight finalists for Outstanding Conservationist in the state of Minnesota, an award given by the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. He and his wife attended an award ceremony in Bloomington in December, where all the nominees were honored.

"It was really eye-opening to see that there's so many people doing so many good things in the state of Minnesota," Brandt said.

Himself included, of course.

"I'm so happy for Jim," Jackie Brandt said, "because he does a lot of organizing and physically doing the work. He's a good leader."

Brandt's reason for all that work is simple.

"This is really a beautiful chain of lakes," he said. "And they need to be taken care of or we aren't going to have that for our kids and grandkids."