Birds fluttered across the prairie as a light rain soaked into the soil. What were once corn fields on the outskirts of Pine City, and what could have been a future residential development, are now and forever a fertile and beautiful landscape of restored grasslands, wetlands, and ponds.
Dave Odendahl’s grandfather bought these 160 acres in 1920 and started a family farm. In addition to the usual grains, he planted grapes, plums, and apples, his vines and trees still producing fruit. Now, Dave is preserving the property, and helping protect the St. Croix River and its tributaries.
The land is in what Odendahl’s conservation partners call a strategic location. It sits on the north shore of Rock Lake, which flows into Rock Creek, and then 30 miles later, into the St. Croix. Erosion from tilled fields can carry harmful material directly to sensitive waters, drained wetlands can cause harmful hydrologic disruptions downstream — and restoration can also have an outsized impact. To the west is a golf course and, on the northern boundary, are the vast parking lots of a Walmart SuperCenter. As Pine City has grown, development pressures on surrounding rural lands has increased. This has expanded the amount of impermeable surfaces, like roofs and parking lots, which means more runoff carrying more unwanted stuff into surface water.
This week, the Odendahl Farm hosted several visitors, guided by some of the organizations who helped make the protection possible. Dave worked closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota Land Trust to restore his land to its natural condition, and make sure it’s permanent.
“These were wonderful people to work with,” Odendahl said.
By working with Minnesota Land Trust, Odendahl was able to slowly phase in restoration as he phased out farming. He still rents some fields to another farmer, while Odendahl stays busy with his other lands.
Love of the land
It was the wetlands that first drew Dave’s attention. In 1995, he began working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to begin blocking the ditches that had previously been dug to move water off the land as quickly as possible. Bringing back the wetlands let the land hold rainfall and snowmelt longer, providing habitat for waterfowl, frogs, and other creatures and stabilizing the whole system to prevent downstream erosion.
Although the Fish and Wildlife Service is known for its large publicly-owned wildlife refuges that provide breeding habitat for countless waterfowl, the federal agency also works with private landowners whenever possible to protect even more lands and waters.
“This property is valuable because it has so many habitat types next to each other,” said John Riens of the USFWS’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. There are at least four different kinds of wetlands, a mix of prairies, and some stunning mature forests.
When Dave wanted to do more than restore wetlands, Riens was able to put him in touch with the Minnesota Land Trust. The nonprofit organization specializes in both land restoration and legal practices that permanently protect lands and waters. It’s also one of the partners in the coalition that organized the day’s visit, the St. Croix Watershed Protection Program. Wild Rivers Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land are the other partners.
The protection effort was established in 2019 with a grant from the state of Minnesota’s Outdoor Heritage Fund, which receives money from the sales tax passed as a result of the 2008 Legacy Amendment. It includes both acquiring new publicly-owned lands, and purchasing conservation easements like on Odendahl’s lands.
The state has continued providing annual funds to protect and restore lands in the St. Croix watershed since 2019 — but only in Minnesota. Without a similar program or funding in Wisconsin, it’s been harder to do similar work across the river.
“Water doesn’t know state lines, but funding does,” said Will Cooksey of the Trust for Public Land. “The rest of country envies what we have in Minnesota.”
The program has still had a significant impact on the Minnesota side. The Odendahl farm was one of several sites protected in the past few years.
“I can have my cake and eat it, too,” Odendahl said. “I can look out front window and see sandhill cranes living their lives out here, and I can live here as long as I want.”
After lunch at Pine City’s Voyageur Park, on the banks of the Snake River, the tour headed south and east to a much different site and a much different protection story. Rather than an easement,
The Trust for Public Land is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Since 1973, the organization has protected 4 million acres around the United States. It added about 1,000 acres to that sum in the past two years along the St. Croix River in Chisago County.
“We try to increase our impact by targeting lands adjoining other public lands,” said Will Cooksey of the Trust for Public Land. The property is adjacent to National Park Service lands and other DNR property.
The group completed the first phase of the preservation project in 2022, purchasing 729 acres from Xcel Energy that the company had owned since 1925, when it was considering damming the upper St. Croix for hydropower. TPL used the St. Croix Watershed Protection funds to buy the land, survey it, conduct extensive work to clean it up, research its title, and more. It was then donated to the Department of Natural Resources to add to Chengwatana State Forest. Earlier this year, TPL added more than 200 additional acres.
Now that the land is in the DNR’s hands, further restoration is underway. A botanist has surveyed the site, another expert assessed the invasive species. Forester Troy Holcomb said the first step is managing non-native plants like buckthorn. If these aggressive species aren’t first kept under control, they could take advantage of changes in forest management to quickly expand their foothold.
“The biggest concern with the new land is managing recreation, not managing the forest,” Holcomb said. With its proximity to the Twin Cities, Chengwatana State Forest is heavily used by campers, hunters, and ATV riders — which are restricted across the forest, and prohibited at the new acquisition under the terms of the deal.
“We’ll manage it based on the native plant communities,” he added. By assessing the current vegetation, as well as factors like soil and geology, the foresters can plan management that keeps the land healthy and resilient. It may mean planting some tree species that are more common to the south and west, and are expanding north and east as the climate changes, to help the forest adapt to a new reality.
Forests are also key for mitigating global warming, as the trees remove vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and store it. At the new public land, oaks, basswood, and aspen competed for sun and nutrients. On the day of the visit, the last flowers of summer were blooming, with diminutive asters lining the paths and white snakeroot looking like spots of snow.
“Federal protections for the St. Croix are only a thin ribbon, a few hundred feet on either side of the river,” said Katie Sickmann of Wild Rivers Conservancy. But, she pointed out that more than 7,700 square miles of land drain toward the river, and seventy-five percent is in private ownership.
Even more protection projects are still in the works, with thousands of additional acres in the St. Croix watershed expected to be preserved in the near future, thanks to three conservation groups, multiple government agencies, and the taxpayers of Minnesota.
What happens on the land, happens to the water, and what’s happening on the newly protected lands is providing big benefits for lakes and rivers.