By: Jesse Bennett
DLS can be traced back to March 1st, 1997 at the 9th annual Prairie Enthusiasts banquet. Jesse, an avid TPE volunteer, was surprised to be approached by a consulting ecologist from Madison. The ecologist had heard through the grapevine that there was a young prairie enthusiast near Bagley who knew a few plants, had a chainsaw, and enjoyed the physical work of natural areas management. At the time, Jesse was starting a career as a marine engineer on the Mississippi River and, with a week-on / week-off schedule, had time for his hobby to become a little side business. For the first couple years it was just that: for $12.00 an hour (wow did we learn what things really cost) Jesse and a friend or two would earn a little extra money restoring natural areas. When Jesse was promoted to Chief Engineer and later to a management position traveling the entire Mississippi River System, the hobby went to the back burner.
Those first few years, Jaye, who initially rejected the idea of a small business, was a Naturalist with the Wisconsin State Park system and later a Ranger with the Natural Park Service. The Idea of a small business got more attractive as it became apparent that finding a full-time permanent position in her field would require chasing temporary, often seasonal, jobs around the country. It was Jaye who expanded the business to the point where a full-time employee was necessary.
Re-enter Jesse, who had grown tired of the merchant marine industry and the corporate world. Once the two of us required the business to eat, it became obvious that we needed to grow to the size where we could take on a diversity of jobs and keep working year round. As we got familiar with the industry, it occurred to us that DLS was quite unique. The other businesses that did natural areas management made a substantial portion of their income from wetland and developing permitting, traditional forestry, landscaping, the nursery industry, etc. Though clearly economically foolish, DLS decided to continue pursuing the agenda of pure natural areas management.
By 2003, with five full time employees, it felt like we had established a reputation and had learned what worked and what didn't. There was, however, something missing. While we were making small scale change, we weren't able to make the landscape-scale change that modern industrial contractors are able to make. That year we added a tracked forestry mower and a couple more employees, and by 2004 our Rx Fire program could boast nearly 1000 acres burned. Our small home based business had soon outgrown the home and we moved our equipment and crew facilities to Jesse's grandfather's old sawmill in Bagley.
In 2006 we had a team of ten , had moved our operation to a dedicated location, had purchased a goat herd for prescribed grazing, and were burning over 1000 acres annually. Through 2009 our goat herd has reached 119 and we have been implementing Rx Grazing into our natural areas management with amazing success. We maintain a fulltime crew and have added an administrative assistant enabling us to spend valuable time in the field with our clients and crew. We've defiantly made mistakes, lessons have come hard, and the financial rewards are less than stellar, but we're happy with what we are and excited by what we are accomplishing.
We are extremely proud to be earning a living without compromising our ethics, making positive change on the landscape, creating permanent employment and attracting enlightening employees in to our rural community and, perhaps most importantly, making natural areas management and invasive species control normal.
To everyone who has influenced, supported, or otherwise helped make Driftless what we are, we extend a heartfelt thank you. We look forward to working with you and creating the future of the natural areas management profession.
~The Driftless Land Stewardship Family