SNA Nature Notes - Summer 2014

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Summer 2014

Private Landowners Vital for Protecting Native Plant Communities

Photo of Larry and Pat Wahl on their land

By Judy Schulte, SNA Program Prairie Specialist


Of the estimated 235,000 acres of good to excellent prairie remaining in Minnesota (2010 Minnesota Biological Survey), more than 115,000 are privately owned. Private landowners engaged in stewardship of these prairie (and woodland) remnants are essential for long-term conservation. And, when it comes to stewardship, Patricia (Pat) and Larry Wahl, are first-class.

The Wahl's 40 year adventure started when they purchased 80 acres along Plum Creek (near Walnut Grove, Minnesota).  At the time, the land was being rented out as pasture with 10 acres of crops. Pat and Larry recognized early on that management was essential to the long-term health of the remnant plant communities on the property. They worked with DNR Forestry to certify their land as a tree farm with the American Forest Foundation in 1979. This preserved the 30 acres of basswood-bur oak and wet-mesic hardwood forests located on site. In 1999, they enrolled the 10 acres of cropland into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and seeded it with native prairie species.

In 2006 Pat and Larry invited Minnesota Biological Survey staff to visit their land in order to survey and map the native plant communities. Native plant communities are classified and described by considering vegetation, hydrology, landforms, soils and natural disturbance regimes. Four major plant communities were identified on the Wahl property.

After this inventory, Pat and Larry began working closely with the DNR Scientific and Natural Areas (SNA) Program (which offers protection options for private landowners) to focus on both the forest communities, noted above, and the adjacent 30 acres of dry hill prairie and mesic prairie. The Wahls proceeded to cut down woody species that had invaded the prairie communities, using the wood as a source of heat in their home.

This past spring, with help from the Prairie Plan Partnership and the DNR Working Lands Initiative, Pat and Larry took on their largest adventure yet, working with a local contractor to cut invasive woody species throughout all 60 acres of the site's native communities. Once the contracted cutting is complete, the Wahls plan to use prescribed burning and mowing to help improve prairie quality and minimize future woody invasions. It may be a lot of work, but the legacy they are leaving for their children and grandchildren is unprecedented. In the 100 years since Laura Ingalls Wilder passed through this same area, the Wahls efforts continue historic and aesthetic preservation of the banks of Plum Creek that Laura would have known.




Welcome Kristi!

Photo of Kristi Loobeek

The SNA Program welcomes Kristi Loobeek, a recent graduate of Concordia University in St. Paul, to her role as Website and Social Media Specialist. Kristi majored in Communication Studies and minored in both Environmental Studies and Writing. Kristi was a scholarship athlete on the University's Division II soccer team and a team captain. Along with being a student-athlete, Kristi was also actively involved with the University's student-run newspaper, The Sword. She was the Production Manager, then Editor-in-Chief. Kristi gained critical experience in the environmental communications world through an internship at the University of Minnesota's partner Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs). As their Communications Assistant, she worked with fellow CERTs staff across Minnesota to promote both clean energy practices and energy conservation awareness. Currently, Kristi is a Conservation Corps of Minnesota (CCM) member stationed within the Scientific and Natural Areas Program doing website and social media work. Traditionally, CCM members have only done field work for the DNR; Kristi is one of a handful of members that have individual placements in a DNR office. Her term ends in December with a potential for an extension in 2015. This brand-new position brings exciting possibilities to the SNA Program!



SNA Events

Photo of butterfly weed at Kasota Prairie SNA

Prairies come into their full glory as summer matures. SNA events have been scheduled across Minnesota to highlight these amazing landscapes, so find one near you or make a day trip out of an event listed below. This is just sampling of a few upcoming prairie events—for a full list of all SNA volunteer projects and events see the SNA Events Calendar.




Kasota Prairie SNA

Tour the Kasota Prairie


Felton Prairie SNA

Sunset Hike at Felton Prairie


Prairie Bush Clover SNA

Guided Walk


Iron Horse SNA

Guided Walk



Site Highlight: Hemlock Ravine SNA

Photo of mudslide at Hemlock Ravine SNA

SNAs are perhaps best known for protecting undisturbed native plant communities and rare species, as well as being areas to enjoy Minnesota's natural treasures. However, SNAs also give us a glimpse into natural processes, such as succession following disruptive change. An excellent example of an extreme change is presenting challenges and opportunities at Hemlock Ravine SNA.

Located adjacent to Jay Cooke State Park (south of Duluth), Hemlock Ravine is a 50-acre SNA that preserves old-growth northern hardwoods, white pine and eastern hemlock. Minnesota is at the extreme western range of eastern hemlock and the site is one of only a few in the state with a natural population of these trees. Notably, eastern hemlock was recently reclassified from special concern to endangered in Minnesota.

On June 20, 2012, the SNA was decimated when roughly ten inches of rain fell in the Duluth area within just a few hours. Flooding-induced mudslides damaged two deer exclosures (tall fences) designed to protect eastern hemlock seedlings and other native plants from deer browse. Although numerous mature hemlock trees were destroyed, some young hemlock survived, such as the one shown in foreground of the adjacent photo.

Though the damage was extensive, all is not lost. In May, Minnesota Biological Survey ecologists Ethan Perry and Jeff Lee joined SNA staff Cathy Handrick and AmberBeth VanNingen to survey the eastern hemlock population. They focused on the area around the damaged exclosures in order to get a better sense of where to rebuild the fences. Approximately five mature trees, seven saplings, and over 50 seedlings were found including those flagged in the photo below. This was very encouraging to see! It's possible that mudslide events are what created the eastern hemlock habitat in the first place, so the area will be monitored for more seedlings, as well as for invasive species.

Photo of mudslide at Hemlock seedlings flagged by DNR ecologists

The next step for the site will be to rebuild the damaged deer exclosures this summer. The fences will be built to maximize protection of the remaining known eastern hemlock locations. Hemlock trees not protected in the larger exclosures may be fenced with single-tree exclosures until they are above browse-height. The protection strategy for these rare trees at Hemlock Ravine SNA will be rolled into the management plan for the site which will be written later this year.

If you would like to visit Hemlock Ravine SNA, please be aware of the on-going work at the site and the potential for more mudslides. The steep ravine slopes are a sanctuary and closed to general use.



Notes from Site Stewards

Photo of two adventurous hikers trudging through alder swamp

Site stewards continue to monitor SNAs across Minnesota. Their observations provide invaluable information to the SNA Program. Here are some interesting notes from reports:

  • Site stewards Norma Malinowski (Kawishiwi Pines SNA) and Doug Lande (Sand Lake Peatland SNA) along with SNA staffer AmberBeth VanNingen set out on a spring adventure that, as far as we know, no one else has ever tried in the growing season. The three trekked out to Caldwell Brook Cedar Swamp SNA on May 29 to conduct a first ever survey of the plant and bird species of the site. There was a reason it hadn't been surveyed up to this point: it took a grueling hike through alder swamp and cattail marsh with abundant ticks, mosquitoes, and black flies in what turned out to be a 90 degree day to get there and back! Their efforts were rewarded with the cool shade under the tall, old cedars within the SNA, and by the compilation of the first list of the plant and bird species of this remote site.
  • Mid-April is often peak time for conducting prescribed burns and Racine Prairie SNA had its turn on April 15 of this year. After the burn, conditions were quite good for stewards Nancy and Gregory McDaniels to pick-up trash the following week—and there was plenty it (the site being adjacent to busy U.S. Highway 63 south of Rochester). Although the entire site is only six acres, the couple filled two trash bags.
  • The bluff country of southeastern Minnesota where Wykoff Balsam Fir SNA is found is noteworthy for its cold and clear streams, many of which are fed by springs. On April 26, Wykoff Balsam Fir site steward Daniel Sheehan reported several springs were gushing from the valley walls for the first time since he began his stewardship visits. Often these springs are dry or only a trickle. 

Thanks for all the work you do for SNAs, stewards!



Nature Notes is the Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas quarterly e-newsletter. It seeks to increase interest, understanding and support of natural areas while promoting involvement in the protection of these special places. Contact us at Find us on Facebook Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas on Facebook.


Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).