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St. Croix River prairie remnant waits to learn fate

Adam Gage, 14, of River Falls., collects lead plant seeds on Tuesday as he volunteers with "The Prairie Enthusiasts," a prairie-conservation organization, to harvest wildflower seeds on a 13-acre prairie, called Blueberry Hill, near Bayport, Minnesota. (John Autey/Pioneer Press via AP)

Adam Gage, 14, of River Falls., collects lead plant seeds on Tuesday as he volunteers with “The Prairie Enthusiasts,” a prairie-conservation organization, to harvest wildflower seeds on a 13-acre prairie, called Blueberry Hill, near Bayport, Minnesota. (John Autey/Pioneer Press via AP)

By MARY DIVINE
St. Paul Pioneer Press

Members of the St. Croix Valley chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts traveled to the Blueberry Hill tallgrass prairie east of the Twin Cities on a recent day to gather seed heads from anise hyssop and leadplant for future local prairie restorations.

But the group’s ambitions don’t stop there. Its current mission is to save the Blueberry Hill prairie — named after the famous Fats Domino song — from development.

The native prairie remnant “dates back to the last Ice Age,” said Evanne Hunt, chairwoman of the group. “It’s extremely rare.

The 13-acre prairie is owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which purchased the land in the early 1970s with plans to build a Minnesota 95 rest area there. Although those plans were never fulfilled, MnDOT officials kept the land for use as a possible staging area for an ongoing $7.7 million Minnesota 95 project, which is resurfacing pavement and making improvements to sidewalks and drainage infrastructure.

Volunteers step forward

The Prairie Enthusiasts’s involvement with the property dates to 2003. The group reached out to MnDOT officials that year to ask about managing the Blueberry Hill prairie, which is on two parcels, and has since invested more than 1,300 volunteer hours removing non-native trees and brush from the prairie remnants, Hunt said. Members of The Prairie Enthusiasts have planted $8,000 worth of local prairie flowers and grass seeds and has conducted prescribed burns to rejuvenate the soil, flowers and grasses.

“Some people want to protect our birds; some want to protect our pollinators,” Hunt said. “Well, if you don’t give them habitat or food, you’re not going to have either of those. If you want your native birds and your native insects to live here, then you have to provide native plants.”

Once the project is complete, MnDOT will decide whether it still needs the property. If not, the department can declare it surplus, said Joe Pignato, the director of MnDOT’s Office of Land Management. Under state statute, the land could then be conveyed to another governmental agency for a “public purpose.”

Advocates seek county’s help

Prairie enthusiasts are lobbying Washington County to take up the prairie cause.

“I would like to see Washington County take it over and add it to their park system,” said Patrick Fleming, who lives in Lake Elmo. “It’s of value to the people who are around it, and that is Washington County.”

The prairie parcels include a 4.75-acre prairie remnant that MnDOT bought from the Chicago and North Western Railway Co., and an 8-acre restored prairie that MnDOT bought from Roy Olson using eminent domain.

Prairie land used to cover almost a third of Minnesota. Now, fewer than 180,000 acres — or less than 1 percent of the state — remains.

“The closer you get to a population area like Minneapolis or St. Paul, the less of that is there,” Fleming said. “It’s a place for people to see and experience a native-plant community where they don’t have to drive to Morris or Kansas or South Dakota.”

Preservation program could help

One way to protect the prairie would be to use money from Washington County’s Land and Water Legacy program — a bond referendum passed by Washington County voters in 2006 authorizing as much as $20 million in taxes to be raised and spent on parks, land preservation and water protection — to buy the land from MnDOT. Places along the St. Croix River are considered a high priority for protection, Kriesel said.

The Land and Water Legacy program has protected more than 900 acres in Washington County, and $12.6 million has been spent, said June Mathiowetz, who administers the program for the county. Most recently, the program has helped protect a property with a trout stream in Afton. A new conservation-area park with hiking trails will be developed on the site by a joint venture formed by the county, Afton, Belwin Conservancy and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Hunt, who lives in Hudson, said she hopes Washington County residents step up and support the prairie-preservation effort.

“With all of these cities and counties and the state restoring pollinator habitat, it seems crazy to destroy a natural one,” she said. “If we don’t protect the remnants, we won’t have the seeds and the plants for the restoration. It makes no sense to plow this up and put houses in and then just down the road put in a pollinator habitat. That’s just crazy.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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