SNA Nature Notes - Summer 2015

Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas header

Summer 2015

Fighting Woody Encroachment

By Tyler Janke, SNA Natural Areas Specialist

Photo of brush mowed area at Two Rivers Aspen Parkland SNA.

Two Rivers Aspen Parkland SNA is 10 miles east of Karlstad in southeastern Roseau County. Purchased by the state in 1991, the 1400-acre site has been described by DNR plant ecologists as the best example of brush prairie remaining in the tallgrass aspen parklands landscape. In addition to its premier natural community, Two Rivers is home to six rare species; three birds (upland sandpiper, Nelson's sparrow, yellow rail); two plants (hair-like sedge, northern gentian) and one butterfly (Powesheik skipper). Currently, the SNA is the only landscape-sized tract managed specifically for its parkland communities.

The aspen parklands landscape is a patchwork of deciduous woodlands, open prairies and sedge-dominated wetlands. A biological crossroads, this area is a natural transition between dry, windy prairies to the west and the moist, cold coniferous forests to the east. Prior to widespread settlement, wildfires routinely swept across through maintaining the open prairies and limiting the expansion of woodlands. In the absence of fire, trees and brush quickly overtake the prairies.

By the time the SNA program purchased the Two Rivers property, conversion to aspen woodlands was well under way. Aerial photos from the 1940s and 1950s show approximately 75% of the present day natural area was open grassland and brush, while small scattered tree groves made up less than 25% of the vegetation. Fast forward to 2015 and those numbers have been reversed.

Photo of prescribed burn at Two Rivers Aspen Parkland SNA.

In 2014, the SNA program implemented an ambitious plan to stop this trend and reclaim former grasslands overcome by woodland expansion. The goals of this plan are to:

  1. Reduce encroaching woody cover by 25% by 2024,
  2. re-establish a fire and disturbance regime, and
  3. maintain a diverse parkland community.

Working with The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Corps and private contractors the SNA program is using brush mowing, aspen girdling and fire to achieve the plan's goal.

As of June 2015, as seen in the above photos, 100 acres of brush has been mowed, more than four miles of firebreak have been constructed, and burn crews from The Nature Conservancy and SNA program conducted the first fire on the site in more than 40 years.



Prescription to Learn

By Kristi Loobeek, SNA Website and Social Media Specialist

Photo of Kristi Loobeek on the fire line.

"I want to figure out a way to do that," was my only thought when I heard a fellow Conservation Corps member talk about working on a prescribed fire. I didn't think about the dangers, or the extensive trainings, or demanding physical aspects—forget sugarplums, visions of flames danced in my head.

I grew up with bonfires, never prescribed fire. But the more I researched and talked with prescribed burn professionals, the more it affirmed my thoughts: I wanted to do that.

So I did. After significant training of course!

Natural areas and prescribed burns were the readymade BFFs that I never knew I had. Fires are these wild, beautiful, regenerating phenomena that help to ensure the preservation of native species. Now replace "fire" with "SNAs," and that sentence still works. That was how I was able to justify learning and training to being a part of these burns. Training is an significant part all Conservation Corps members work terms. If I learned even a tiny bit about this extreme management tool, I would be able to share that with our social media fans. I couldn't possibly be the only one mesmerized by fire or wanting to know more about it.

And so my adventure began. The first step was to gain my Type 2 Wildland Firefighter certification. Four days of in-class lectures and one day of field training later, I was ready for step two: the pack test. Firefighting requires a high level of physical fitness—lifting, trekking, swinging; firefighting is not for the faint of heart. There are three levels of the pack test (light, moderate, and arduous) all variations of carrying weight a certain distance, in a certain amount of time. A "moderate" level of fitness is required for DNR firefighers, but being a compulsive overachiever, I chose to tackle the arduous level. A 45 lb weighted vest, two miles, in under 45 minutes and I can full heartedly tell you my legs were sore for multiple days after my test.

This is where my preparation stopped, and the real learning began. Right away, I would like to say that I was incredibly fortunate to work with such a welcoming, knowledgeable, and hilarious crew.

Photo of prescribed burn crew on the fire line.

While my mannerisms were similar to someone who had had far too much coffee at my first real prescribed burn, I was assured by my crew member Brian that it was in fact one of the most dull burns they had been at all year (which in hindsight, truly was uneventful). However, despite the fact that we quite literally burned a half acre of short green grass, it was the perfect "starter burn." I learned how to set up and break down equipment, and not start myself on fire in a low-pressure setting.

After this initial burn I was a professional firefighter... well maybe not professional, but I was certainly more confident. As soon as my fellow crew members assessed that I wasn't going to start any forest fires (non-prescribed ones), they began to relax and open up about their day-to-day activities. How many burns they had done this year? How well those burns went. I heard all kinds of stories, but more importantly I learned all of their backgrounds. Gary, a proud dad who could identify any plant or bird you pointed to; Paul, the quiet hard worker who has dreams of being a state park manager; Brian, the sarcastic telecommunications engineer who had done Conservation Corps like me; Nate, a guy you immediately trust just from the sincerity of his smile and who is also a firefighter in his hometown. And last but not least, Russ, the Burn Boss who was one of my instructors at certification training.

I don't know what I expected the crew to be like, but it was not at all what I imagined, in the best way possible. Each night, burn after burn, I would return home, completely exhausted. Meanwhile, on days that we didn't burn, instead of heading to a computer to work like me, these guys went out into the field and did other tasks. They pulled invasive species, removed old fences and rail road ties, picked up scrap metal and other trash out of the SNAs. This is where I learned the true lesson. While I may work hard promoting and publicizing the SNAs, it is the field crews that really do the hard work of natural area management and they deserve the praise.



A National Look at Natural Areas

Aerial photo of the Red Lake Peatland Scientific and Natural Area.

The Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas Program is a member of the Natural Areas Association, a national group that supports professionals protecting nature. They've recently come out with a Status of State Natural Area Programs 2015 report.

We often just focus on Minnesota's natural areas, but this report provides a wider perspective on how programs across the United States sustain natural features and rare elements of America's natural heritage. Comparisons are drawn on how each state works to preserve natural areas, as well as how they contrast. Appendices of interesting maps help visualize program status, goals, and protection features as well as the number of sites, acreage, and average acreage in each state.

Take a look for yourself, you might be suprised by the findings.



SNA Events

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Summer is high time for a wide variety of informative, educational, and fun events. Its also high time for you to check one out! A full list is available on the SNA Events Calendar.



Felton Prairie SNA

Bird Hike at Bicentennial and Blazing Star (Felton) Prairies


Wolsfeld Woods SNA

Bat Walk


Prairie Coteau SNA

Guided Walk


Lost Valley Prairie SNA

Volunteer Project: Invasive Removal, Seed Collection



Site Highlight: Kettle River SNA

Photo of garlic mustard

Designated on March 28, 1975 Kettle River SNA is one of the oldest Scientific and Natural Areas in Minnesota. The large 800-acre site has extensive forests of pine and hardwoods as well as large floodplain forests along the Kettle River.

In recent years invasive garlic mustard has found its way on to this nearly intact natural area. So far the patches are nearest the river and small, where seeds may have been carried in by floods or on visitors' shoes. To get a jump on the aggressive plant, the SNA Program has contracted with Conservation Corps Minnesota to remove all garlic mustard found. Crews were out in May of this year. The goal is to keep garlic mustard in check and not allow it to become widespread here. If continued monitoring and removal goes well, the hope is garlic mustard may be eradicated here all-together.



Notes from Site Stewards

Photo of garlic mustard

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

  • Site stewards Karl Erie and Jena Stinar have started the fragrant task of removing garlic mustard (shown in the adjacent photo) near the Zumbro River in Zumbro Falls Woods SNA. On a May 16th visit they began pulling the invasive, which smells like it's name suggests, from two small pockets. It will take another trip to tackle a larger area where the plant has invaded.
  • On April 1st site steward Steven Okins spoke with SNA Specialist Brad Bolduan about the extensive tree removal at Cedar Mountain SNA. Steve remarked on how different the site looks with about 50 acres of what was virtually impenetrable woods now a wide open landscape. The intent is to bring the site back to previous historic conditions of prairie and savanna.
  • On a March 15th search for invasive species site steward Sheila Maybanks found garlic mustard rosettes under the leaf litter at St. Croix Savanna SNA. She also picked up trash on this day, her April 26th, and May 27th visits.

Thanks for all the work you do SNA stewards!



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


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).