On a recent Saturday afternoon, a group gathered on a bluff overlooking the St. Croix south of Bayport, Minnesota. They were celebrating the completion of an agreement that will let volunteers protect and manage native prairie at the state-owned site called Blueberry Hill. Flowers bloomed, bees buzzed, and birds sang while speakers talked about the work involved in conservation, and the remarkable ecosystem surrounding them.
The event marked the end of lengthy negotiations that resulted in a first-of-its-kind partnership, but it marked the start of more hard work involved in managing this imperiled type of landscape.
“Protecting prairie is just the beginning,” said Jim Rogala, president of the St. Croix Valley chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts. “Then it needs management.”
Management is what the group is now ready to do after two years of sometimes difficult negotiations, and a lot of paperwork. It marked a stark reversal from the revelation in early 2020 that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) was considering selling the land. No sale was ever formally proposed, but multiple parties express interest in purchasing it, and the agency has a “strong mandate” from the legislature to sell off surplus real estate. It raised alarm bells with the people who had been managing the site for two decades, and who knew its natural value.
The volunteer prairie stewards have been working at the site for longer than 20 years, conducting controlled burns, harvesting and planting seeds, removing non-native species, and more. The new agreement will allow that work to continue for at least another five years.
Prairie like Blueberry Hill once covered swaths of the lower St. Croix Valley. It was wiped out by crop farming and urban development, so that today the landscape covers only one percent of its former regional range. To survive, it needs regular fire to suppress woody tree species from taking over, and other natural forces. When healthy, it can be a humming ecosystem that is home to many species and performs valuable functions.
The unique site is split into two pieces by a narrow township road. On the east side of the road, the original prairie that existed before European settlement has never been plowed or planted, to the best of anyone’s knowledge. On the west side, a swath of former crop land has been replanted with seeds from across the road. Seeds from the remnant of native prairie have also been used to restore other sites in the area.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation and St. Croix Valley chapter of The Prairie Enthusiasts used a 2017 law passed by the state legislature to put together the plan. The law created a new “Highway Sponsorship” program, to help the agency work with local partners to manage some of its more than 150,000 acres of land holdings around the state.
“MnDOT doesn’t have the resources to do this work,” said Jessica Oh, a representative from the agency’s sustainability department. “These public-private partnerships are essential.”
There were many areas where the partners had to put plans in writing and agree on practices. Oh thanked chapter secretary Evanne Hunt, who prepared formal plants to manage plants, traffic, burning, non-native species prevention, and much more.
“This is the first time in MnDOT history a private non-profit is burning prairie on MnDOT land,” said .
The five-year agreement is intended to formalize The Prairie Enthusiasts’ work at Blueberry Hill, while allowing time to possibly find another public owner. Oh said that Washington County and other local government agencies have expressed interest in acquiring the site. It is also near the St. Croix Savanna Scientific and Natural Area, owned and managed by the Department of Natural Resources.
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After the speakers were done, prairie experts led tours of the two parts of the site. It was necessary to fully appreciate the accomplishment, according to organizers, who said it would let visitors see the many individual organisms that combine to comprise these slices of prairie.
On the historic prairie on the east side of the road, Harvey Halvorsen led a handful of visitors down a trail and along the bluff edge. First they walked through a stand of oaks, which he pointed out had clearly grown in a prairie-like setting, with wide spreading limbs and high crowns towering overhead. He noted native plants like harebell, lead plant, several sunflowers, and flowering spurge. It wasn’t blooming yet, but he pointed out he could smell bergamot.
“You have to get out there and look at the plants, otherwise it just looks green,” Halvorson said.
The bluff will look green, and rich with native species, for at least another five years, thanks to the new agreement.