SNA Nature Notes - Summer 2016

Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas header

Summer 2016

A Prairie Protector: Rhett Johnson

Rhett Johnson

By Kristi Loobeek, SNA Program Web and Social Media Specialist

If you ask someone to describe the wild areas of Minnesota, you might get a picture of old-growth pines, fiery-red fall maples, or clear blue waters; but historically, one of the largest parts of the picture would be prairie. Prior to European settlemen more than 18 million acres of prairie occurred in Minnesota. Currently, less than two percent of that native prairie remains and Rhett Johnson, Scientific and Natural Area Prairie Specialist, is working hard to preserve it.

"Protecting and managing prairie remnants are important for the ecology of Minnesota. Prairies are critical habitats and they have become scarce," Rhett explained. A transplant from Iowa, Rhett moved to Minnesota, Mankato specifically, in the sixth grade. After going back to his roots for his undergraduate degree at Iowa State, and working as a field botanist for a few years, he completed his master's degree at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. "My graduate project was a dendrochronological examination of flooding impacts on peatland trees; it was fun." In layman's terms: he used tree rings to find the tolerances of black spruce and tamarack to water table alterations.

Rhett is relatively new to the Department of Natural Resources, at just under a year's service, but he brings a wealth of experience to his position. "Before this I worked for a private ecological consulting company for three years. Before that I worked for The Nature Conservancy for about four years and before that I was on the faculty at University of Minnesota, Crookston for about four years, where I taught natural resources and botany classes," he explained.

Rhett's current position within the Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas Program focuses on Native Prairie Bank. "We work to protect native prairie remnants on private land through easements. I also work with private landowners to help them manage their prairies."

When asked if he had any weird or crazy experiences at work, Rhett answered, "Not so much at my current position, or maybe the weird and crazy are becoming the norm for me." Rhett did elaborate on some of his current challenges in his position, "The changing climate is a critical challenge, and coupled with a drastically increasing human population, the preservation of wild lands is increasingly difficult." He continued, "With the human population where it is and where it is going, it will be difficult to preserve lands for the sake of nature."

Rhett's conservation ethic was established early. He noted his environmental interest sprouted from "my grandmother when I was very young, the Boy Scouts later. I was always interested in biology and nature." He continued, "My focused interest in botany and plant ecology stems largely from some great professors I had as an undergraduate."

With Rhett Johnson's background in different avenues of conservation, you can count on him to do all he can for Minnesota's prairies, "When I move forward with new Native Prairie Bank easements I feel good about the land that is being protected and the benefits to good landowners. I am glad to be a part of the effort to preserve Minnesota's prairie resources."



New Digital Media

MN DNR website, showing SNA updates

We'd like you to try out a first draft for what could become a complete e-book guide to Minnesota's Scientific and Natural Areas. This trial version documents 12 Natural Areas through text, photos, videos, maps and links to further detail.

The trial e-book, entitled "Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas" is available now for downloading. You can get a free copy from either the Apple iBooks app, or soon on EBooks Minnesota (search for Minnesota Natural Areas).

We encourage you to send us feedback regarding the e-book. We are interested in knowing:


  • Is the content useful and interesting for each site?
  • Was this format what you expected?
  • What did you like most? Least?


We have also made some significant updates to Scientific and Natural Area web pages, including the addition of some completely new content. For example the page on things to do and rules was completely re-written from top to bottom. Most of the updates are to pages about the Scientific and Natural Area Program. Information about Natural Areas have seen some major changes as well.

As with the e-book, we encourage you to let us know if you have any comments on the website updates.



SNA Events

Volunteers cutting sumac

It is summertime! You need some outside time, don't you? Come along on one of these fun stewardship projects or informative events! A full list is available on the SNA Events Calendar.



Grey Cloud Dunes SNA

Volunteer Stewardship Project: Sumac Removal


Black Lake Bog SNA

Plant, Bird and Insect Survey


Itasca State Park and Itasca Wilderness Sanctuary SNA

Minnesota's Treasures: Specialty Tour

Andrea Wakely, SNA-Park Naturalist at Buffalo River State Park/Bluestem Prairie SNA, cordially invites you to a special photography program. The program is July 24th form 6 to 8:30 PM and will feature photographic composition basics. Bring your digital camera, field guides, and a sense of adventure as we photograph Bicentennial unit of Felton Prairie SNA.Get the details on where and how to register.




Site Highlight: Blue Devil Valley SNA

By Megan Zeiher, SNA Program Web and Social Media Specialist

Blue Devil Valley SNA

"It is in the still silence of nature where one will find true bliss." –J.J.C.

Flanked by busy roads and the comforts of civilization, silence is still found at Blue Devil Valley SNA. That is unless of course you’re lucky enough to be met by indigo buntings, flickers, red-bellied woodpeckers or any of the 10 species of sparrows that have been found there. In addition to trying your hand at tracking down the 64 bird species recorded at this Natural Area, summer is an excellent time of year to enjoy and photograph the countless wildflowers the site boasts. You'll also find the brittle prickly pear cacti (Opuntia fragilis) in bloom during the summer months and if you look more diligently perhaps even a clump or two of plains prickly pear cacti (Opuntia macrorhiza), aka devil's tongue. If you'd like to make a weekend of it, camping can be found less than eight miles away at Upper Sioux Agency State Park.

On your visit you may also see metal or wooden cover boards placed throughout the site. These boards are being used in the Minnesota River Reptile Project aimed at improving technical guidance for land management activities. They allow staff to assess the distribution, habitat use and movements of the five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus). The five-lined skink has been given the nickname blue devil because of the bright blue tail it has as a juvenile. It is important not to disturb these cover boards while visiting.

Management at this site includes ongoing buckthorn control and plans for future prescribed fire.

Lace up your hiking boots, pack your camera and tuck the birding list in your pocket for a visit to a site that will surely bring you true bliss that only the silence of nature can.



Notes from Site Stewards

Bee block at Lost Lake Peatland SNA

Starting this year the University of Minnesota Extension Bee Atlas is working with the SNA Program and site stewards to install bee blocks on a number of Natural Areas. This 3-year study asks stewards to submit observations from April to October that document when bees are most active and what materials nests are built with in the blocks. In the fall the blocks will be sent to a University entomologist where the larva will be reared for identification. You can follow along as this project unfolds on Minnesota Bee Atlas' Facebook.

Here are some stewards who have informed us when their block was installed:

Thanks for all the work you do for SNAs stewards!



Nature Notes is the Minnesota Scientific and Natural Areas quarterly e-newsletter (archive online). 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).