Beloved Blueberry Hill will stay in public hands for the foreseeable future. As first reported on St. Croix 360 last June, the unique site south of Bayport is owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and has been managed for native plants by volunteers with the nonprofit group The Prairie Enthusiasts since 2005.
The state agency told the group last year it was planning to sell the property as unneeded real estate.
Now, in a reversal, those plans have been canceled, and The Prairie Enthusiasts St. Croix Valley Chapter just finalized a new five-year plan to continue managing the site with the agency’s blessing. Volunteers with the group were back at Blueberry Hill last week, burning the prairie to help restore it to full health.
“The license is valid for five years and enables the chapter to manage Blueberry Hill as a native prairie remnant to expand pollinator habitat and maintain a conservancy for ground nesting species,” said TPE-SCV chair Evanne Hunt.
Blueberry Hill provides a valuable food, shelter, and breeding territory for numerous species of wildlife, from insects to birds. Its blufftop location also means its on the migration route for countless birds, providing a priceless rest stop along their journeys.
Long before it was recognized for its value as native habitat, the site was also a popular place to park, party, and enjoy the view. That history actually helped the small slice of land between Quant Ave and the river bluff remain undisturbed. Despite significant abuse from cars and people, many plants remained growing at the site as they had for thousands of years.
That original prairie has an outsized impact, providing invaluable seeds for the restoration of additional land. Getting seeds from local species of plants helps ensure genetics that are well-suited to conditions. The remnant prairie has provided many pounds of native seeds that The Prairie Enthusiasts have harvested for years.
On the other side of Quant Ave, group has reconstructed native prairie on about 10 acres of former farm fields, using seeds from the other side of the street.
The agreement and management plan The Prairie Enthusiasts have now signed with MnDOT call for careful stewardship. The group is authorized to remove invasive species, burn prairies, and harvest seeds, but with restrictions. Herbicides can only be used to eliminate weeds by licensed applicators. To ensure prescribed fires don’t significantly harm nesting birds and other species, they are only allowed to burn at most one-third of the site in a given year, and may only burn any part of it every four years at most. They may plant on the site, but no endangered or listed species. They will also pick up litter along Highway 95 at least twice per year.
MnDOT will install a highway sponsorship sign recognizing The Prairie Enthusiasts’ efforts, and a small parking area will be created off Quant Ave.
The group plans to keep busy at the site. They are hoping to be allowed to create a small parking area on the north side of the site, which could help them protect a patch of native prairie plants that was only recently discovered. MnDOT has already created a pad for construction trailers on the site.
“This winter we plan to clear cedar and boxelder trees around the parking area as it was recently discovered to be loaded with prairie plants,” Hunt said. “This area will provide an even better view of the St. Croix River.”
In addition to managing the site, the group says they hope to use the five years of the sponsorship agreement to work toward permanent protection. They intend to work with the Department of Natural Resources on adding the property to the nearby St. Croix Savanna Scientific and Natural Area, or with Washington County to include it in the park system.
The Prairie Enthusiasts are planning a celebration at the property next spring. Stay tuned for details.