Photo by Kirk Nelson
Representative Bruce Vento was well-known as a champion for environmental causes in Minnesota and across the nation. During his tenure in Congress, he was chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands for ten years, overseeing the enactment of 300 laws. After his death in 2000, several places in the Metro area were established in his honor: the Vento View Overlook near Cherokee Park, the Bruce Vento Regional Trail in Maplewood and St. Paul, which then leads down through Swede Hollow to the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. The 27-acre sanctuary is located just east of downtown St. Paul, tucked in between the railroad tracks along Warner Road and the bluffs below Mounds Park. One cave, called Wakan Tipi (Spirit House), was a significant site for the Native Americans living in the area. In 1853, the North Star Brewery was built here, and they used one of the caves to store beer. Starting in the 1880’s, the area became a railroad and industrial area, later becoming largely abandoned in the 1970’s. In 2001, a coalition of St. Paul residents, neighborhood groups, and the City of St. Paul started work on purchasing the land, and in 2005 it became an official park open to the public. There is an ongoing effort to restore the land’s ecology and native plant communities, though reminders of the industrial history have been left in place. The sanctuary has also become a significant location for birdwatching and for educational opportunities.
— Text and photo by Kirk Nelson
Brownsville Bluff Scientific and Natural Area, in Houston County, was designated on January 19, 2016, to protect habitat for the milk snake and the state threatened western ratsnake. Neither snake is poisonous. The site consists of 286 acres bedrock bluff covered with windblown sediment. The 39-acre south section is a wildlife sanctuary that is closed to the public. The eastern-facing slopes are moderately steep to very steep. They have a mature, moderately moist forest of sugar maple, basswood, ironwood, northern red oak, and white oak. The west-facing slopes are less steep. They have a dry to moderately moist mature forest of bur oak, northern pin oak, northern red oak, and paper birch, with some shagbark hickory, white oak, and black walnut. At the top of the bluff there is a prairie that has been used as an agricultural field. It will be restored to prairie and savanna.
An access road leads from the parking area (walk around the gate) 0.67 miles to the top of the bluff. A footpath follows the cleared fields on the bluff top to the northern boundary. Another footpath leads east from there to a spectacular overlook at the northeast corner of the SNA, a dizzying 400 feet above the road below.
Designated on June 12, 2017, Lawrence Creek SNA is one of the newest Scientific and Natural Areas in the Minnesota DNR’s inventory. It consists of 71.8 forested acres of steep bluffs and deep ravines near Franconia in Chisago County. Included within its boundary is a trout stream, a hunting shack, and an 11-acre state wildlife sanctuary. The sanctuary is closed to the public and visitors are asked to “Stay back from cliffs and off steep slopes” to protect sensitive plant communities. There are no maintained trails, but there is a forest road and worn footpaths that together complete a 3.2-mile circuit of the site.
Visitors to Lawrence Creek SNA this week (May 6 to 12, 2018) will see Pennsylvania sedge in flower and sharp-lobed hepatica and yellow marsh marigold peaking. Other spring wildflowers in bloom this week include bloodroot, white trout lily, large-flowered bellwort, large-flowered trillium, and Virginia spring beauty. Louisiana Waterthrush, a species of special concern, has been heard here. The site contains habitat that may host Cerulean Warbler, Acadian flycatcher, and Red-shouldered Hawk. Three Helmeted Guineafowl were seen in the parking area by a surprised visitor. They apparently belong to the farm across the road and are free to roam the adjacent fields.
Trail through Henry’s Woods Park
When settlers started arriving in south-central Minnesota in the 1800’s, they encountered a large stretch of forest about 100 miles long and 40 miles wide, basically from what is now Mankato to Monticello. The predominant mix of trees was elm, sugar maple, basswood, and oak, which contrasted with the surrounding prairies, savannas, and brushier oak and aspen woodlands. In the 1700’s, French explorers called this region bois grand, which translates to the commonly used English name – Big Woods. There is a similar region in western Wisconsin, and part of this area near Lake Pepin is the setting for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first book, Little House in the Big Woods. Over the years, the increase of farming and real estate development has reduced the Big Woods to scattered remnants and secondary stands that are mainly preserved in parks and other protected areas – about 2% of the original expanse. Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park is one of the most pristine fragments. Another well-preserved remnant is Henry’s Woods Park in Rogers, MN.
An article in the July-August 1998 edition of The Minnesota Volunteer talks more about the Big Woods and features the Henrys’ farm. Rising taxes and land values encouraged many land owners to sell their land to developers, but the Henrys instead wanted to preserve their 60-acre forest as a memorial to Lloyd’s grandparents who bought the farm shortly after the Civil War (it was Hassan Township at the time). Eventually, the current 52-acre site was gifted to Hassan Township (now Rogers), and it is permanently protected in conjunction with the Minnesota Land Trust. The main parking area is off Brockton Lane, and the first things you see are a circle garden in the middle of the parking area and a restored farm building near the trailhead by the woods. A large polished stone marker in the middle of the garden talks about the Henrys’ gift and the history of the woods. The Henrys not only farmed the area, they also had a sawmill and used the woods for lumber and firewood. In addition, they tapped the maple trees each spring and made maple syrup; the preserved building on site is the Henrys’ “sugar shack” where they made the syrup. When you enter the woods, the trail starts as minimally graveled, but then turns to bare earth as it loops through the woods. A bridge crosses over a small stream, and there are two small ponds with wood duck boxes. It’s a tranquil spot not far from a large commercial/retail area. A trip to Cabela’s could result in a purchase of hiking shoes and an opportunity to use them right away at Henry’s Woods.
Text and photo by Kirk Nelson
Designated on August 22, 2016, River Warren Outcrops SNA is one of Minnesota’s two newest SNAs. Its 89 acres include a prairie restoration, densely wooded bedrock outcrop, and floodplain forest along the east bank of the Minnesota River. Plains prickly pear and Kentucky coffee tree, two species of special concern in Minnesota, are found here.
Future management plans include the removal of buckthorn and redcedar from about 85% of the site, and continued restoration of a former agricultural field to prairie. An unusual feature of this SNA is 1.6 miles of horse trails. These trails were on the site when the land was purchased by the DNR, and they will continue to be maintained by the seller.
On rare occasions we come across a wild space so fragile or beautiful that we hesitate to publish it. We want to keep it to ourselves, to protect it and prevent it from being spoiled. The hidden cove at Crystal Spring Scientific and Natural Area, Minnesota’s newest SNA, is that kind of place. Crystal Spring SNA is near Taylor’s Falls in northern Washington County. Its 38 woodland acres are mostly red oak forest with small areas of black ash swamp.
A forest road and then a well-worn hiking trail lead from the northwest corner to the southeast corner of the SNA. The hiking trail eventually passes a set of winding steps that leads down a bluff and out of sight. The steps end at a sandstone cliff about 25 feet above a stream. A narrow trail at the base of the cliff but only halfway down the steep bluff leads to a hidden cove. The north wall of the cove is dry cliff exposing two bedrock layers, Jordan Sandstone and Saint Lawrence Shale. A spring at end of the cove bubbles into a “crystal” clear pool which overflows down the cliff to Zavoral’s Creek below. The steep walls of the gorge, the waterfall, and the lush vegetation join to create an alluring natural attraction.
Four species with conservation status in Minnesota have been seen here: butternut, an endangered species; and American ginseng, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Red-shouldered Hawk, all special concern species.
River Terrace Prairie SNA features a rare gravel prairie on a terrace above the Cannon River valley.
The northwest-facing slope of the terrace is the best place to view native wildflowers in the spring. Visit in early May to see blooming American pasqueflower, mid-May for prairie smoke and kittentails, and late May for fringed puccoon and prairie violet.
The old field below the terrace is a work in progress. Recent management activities in this area include cutting and stacking eastern redcedar and mowing down other woody species. A prescribed burn north and east of the terrace was conducted in the spring of 2017.
At 230 acres, Terrace Oaks West is the largest park in the City of Burnsville park system. The entire park is oak woodland. There are 3.8 miles of summer hiking trails, 2.5 miles of mountain bike trails, about 6.8 miles of winter ski trails, and about 1.7 miles of winter hiking trails.
With the help of Great River Greening, 19 acres at the northwest corner of the park are undergoing restoration to oak savanna. The project began in 2014 and is expected to be completed in 2017. Invasive woody species, including buckthorn and boxelder, have been cut, reduced to wood chips, and carted away. The area will undergo a controlled burn to stimulate the growth of understory vegetation. Following that, it will be seeded with 6 to 8 species of prairie grasses and 20 to 30 species of wildflowers.
Photo by Kirk Nelson
Pilot Knob is an historic site in Mendota Heights on the east bank of the Minnesota River. Two overlooks provide spectacular vistas of Fort Snelling, the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, and the Minneapolis skyline. A half-mile of paved and mowed trails include interpretive signs that describe the history of the site. The trail connects to Dakota County’s Big Rivers Regional Trail, a paved bike trail. Bald Eagles and migrating raptors are often seen flying overhead.
Pilot Knob is known to the Dakota as Oheyawahi, or “a hill much visited.” It served as a burial site for for Dakota Villages along the Minnesota River. It is here that the Dakota signed a treaty in 1851 that transferred millions of acres of land to the United States. The City of Mendota Heights acquired 25 acres on the hill in 2006. Overhead power lines were buried underground, brush was cut and removed, prairie was restored, and wildflowers and oak trees were planted.
Tamarack Nature Center in White Bear Township is one of three units that make up the 862-acre Bald Eagle-Otter Lakes Regional Park. Its 320 acres encompass oak-aspen woodland, restored prairie, and marsh and other wetlands. It has four miles of hiking trails that include an interpretive trail and boardwalks over wetlands. In the winter, some of the trails are groomed for cross-country skiing. Osprey and Bald Eagle have been seen flying overhead. For the kids it has Discovery Hollow Nature Play Area & Garden and many programs offering educational opportunities.