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Prairie protectors find their thrill saving Blueberry Hill

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Blueberry Hill prairie south of Bayport is secure — at least for the next five years.

The St. Croix Valley chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts and the Minnesota Department of Transportation recently signed a “Highway Sponsorship” agreement for the 13-acre site. Under the terms of the agreement, The Prairie Enthusiasts will be responsible for the stewardship of the restored pollinator habitat on State Highway 95. The future of the site was unclear last year.

MnDOT officials bought the land in the early 1970s, but plans to build a highway rest area there never came about.

MnDOT officials kept the land for a possible staging area for last year’s Highway 95 construction project, which cost $7.7 million project for pavement resurfacing, sidewalk improvements, drainage updates and utility repairs.

In 2003, The Prairie Enthusiasts reached out to MnDOT officials and arranged to manage the Blueberry Hill prairie, which is located on two parcels. The group has invested more than 1,400 volunteer hours removing non-native trees and brush from the prairie remnants, said Evanne Hunt, the group’s chairwoman.

MnDOT this year proposed that the group become part of the agency’s Highway Sponsorship Program, authorized by state law in 2017 and designed to allow “businesses, civic groups and individuals to support the enhancement and maintenance of Interstates, U.S. and Minnesota highway roadsides,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

Jessica Oh, the agency’s strategic partnerships director, oversees the program. She said The Prairie Enthusiasts are the “perfect partner” in caring for the land.

“They have such great expertise,” she said. “They truly are a steward of the public right of way. We really see that this is a win-win way to support their ongoing stewardship of the site.”

MnDOT is working with partners throughout the state on sponsorship programs of different sites, Oh said. About five already are in place, and six more are in development, she said.

For example, as part of the old Lilac Way, near State Highway 100, the nonprofit Graeser Park Restoration and Preservation in Robbinsdale, is proposing invasive removal and vegetation maintenance around the historic Graeser Park beehive and surrounding park, she said.

In New Ulm, MnDOT crews will be working on an upcoming restoration of a historic New Ulm Springs Wayside rest area on State Highway 14, which was built in 1939. There, MnDOT is collaborating with Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm to sponsor vegetation maintenance, invasive removals and litter pick up, she said.

Each site will be marked with a special sponsor-acknowledgement sign, she said.

The sponsorship could be renewed after five years.

Hunt said she hopes The Prairie Enthusiasts volunteers will be involved for decades to come.

“We are thrilled that we will be able to protect this rare prairie example,” she said. “We hope that the public driving by on Highway 95 enjoys it as much as we do.”

Under the terms of the agreement, The Prairie Enthusiasts volunteers are given permission to remove non-native trees, plant seeds, conduct prescribed burns and redistribute seeds on the site, Hunt said.

“We are not allowed to bring in any seeds that were not already on the site,” she said. “Minnesota has a rule that you can’t bring in endangered plants.”

On. Oct. 31, volunteers gathered to burn 10 acres of Blueberry Hill — named after the famous Fats Domino song. The burned area was a section of restored prairie that The Prairie Enthusiasts volunteers had planted in February 2013, she said.

Three acres of the site were left unburned as “insect refugia” to provide a protected habitat for the rusty-patched bumblebee, which became Minnesota’s state bee in 2019.

“We’re lucky to have this,” Hunt said.

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