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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.

Forty years after they had joined under a tent along the shores of Eagle Lake north of Willmar, surviving founders of Pheasants Forever returned to Doug Lovander's place on the lake to reminisce about how the urban and rural groups agreed to the local control model of the organization. Visiting are, from clockwise from bottom left: Will Smith, Marybeth Block, Larry Broberg, Lyndon Hansen, Gary Hockstra, Dennis Anderson, Kevin Fladeboe, Bruce Bjornberg, and Doug Lovander.
Forty years after they had gathered under a tent along the shores of Eagle Lake north of Willmar, surviving founders of Pheasants Forever returned to Doug Lovander's place on the lake to reminisce about how the urban and rural groups agreed to the local control model of the organization. Visiting, clockwise from bottom left, are: Will Smith, Marybeth Block, Larry Broberg, Lyndon Hansen, Gary Hockstra, Dennis Anderson, Kevin Fladeboe, Bruce Bjornberg, and Doug Lovander.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune
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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.

Ring-necked pheasant
“ ... We tolerate winters such as these, when hens and roosters freeze to death, their faces mere clumps of ice after they turn windward to a final, desperate attempt to survive. Have you ever watched a pheasant freeze?” These words written by Dennis Anderson in a column published March 7, 1982, proved to be the call heard across the grasslands of Minnesota and rallied support for what became Pheasants Forever. A ring-necked pheasant is shown in a cornfield near Willmar in 2021.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune file photo

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.

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This photo was taken 40 years ago of the founders of Pheasants Forever who had gathered on the shores of Eagle Lake north of Willmar in Kandiyohi County. The founders represented groups from the Twin Cities and Kandiyohi County, and agreed to the local control concept of the organization in which funds raised by local chapters is controlled by those chapters for local projects.
This photo was taken 40 years ago of the founders of Pheasants Forever who had gathered on the shores of Eagle Lake north of Willmar in Kandiyohi County. The founders represented groups from the Twin Cities and Kandiyohi County, and agreed to the local control concept of the organization in which funds raised by local chapters is controlled by those chapters for local projects.
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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.

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The Kandiyohi County Pheasants Forever chapter was the first in outstate Minnesota. Doug Lovander, one of its founders, center, is shown with former Vikings coach Bud Grant and announcer Brent Musburger on a hunt.
The Kandiyohi County Pheasants Forever chapter was the first in outstate Minnesota. Doug Lovander, one of its founders, center, is shown with former Vikings coach Bud Grant and announcer Brent Musburger on a hunt.
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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.

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“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.

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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.

Forty years after they had joined under a tent along the shores of Eagle Lake north of Willmar, surviving founders of Pheasants Forever returned to Doug Lovander's place on the lake to reminisce about how the urban and rural groups agreed to the local control model of the organization. Joining for a group photo are, back row from left: Larry Broberg, Doug Lovander, Dennis Anderson, Gary Hockstra and Will Smith. In front from left: Bruce Bjornberg, Neil Tacawa, Marybeth Block, Kevin Fladeboe, and Lyndon Hansen.
Forty years after they had gathered under a tent along the shores of Eagle Lake north of Willmar, surviving founders of Pheasants Forever returned to Doug Lovander's place on the lake to reminisce about how the urban and rural groups agreed to the local control model of the organization. Joining for a group photo are, back row from left: Larry Broberg, Doug Lovander, Dennis Anderson, Gary Hockstra and Will Smith. In front from left: Bruce Bjornberg, Neil Tacawa, Marybeth Block, Kevin Fladeboe and Lyndon Hansen.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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