Legacy Amendment helps support DNR native prairie restoration in northwestern Minnesota state parks

When hints of fall approach northwestern Minnesota, an Allis Chalmers combine becomes a regular sight as it bounces its way along the prairie lands of Glendalough and Buffalo River state parks. The combine, so perfectly named “Allis,” is harvesting seeds, specifically prairie plant seeds, some of which are rare and all of which are an integral part of the ever-shrinking remnants of native prairie in the state.

From seed gathering, sorting, storing and planting to prescribed burning, mowing and weed control, it’s been a productive four years for Cindy Lueth, DNR Parks and Trails resource specialist, and her parks resource crew – all of whom are thankful that Minnesotans approved the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in 2008. The Legacy Amendment placed a new emphasis on conservation in Minnesota and accelerated natural resource management work at state parks and trails.

Prior to Legacy funding, money for restoring native prairies on state park lands was scarce. The prairie restoration crew for the Department of Natural Resources northwest region consisted of Lueth, one temporary employee and a few interns. The crew patched together salvaged equipment from other DNR divisions, lived in tents during the field season and converted old buildings into workspace and prairie plant seed sorting, storing and drying areas.

The crew also depended on other DNR Parks and Trails staff who donated time and equipment to plant and mow. Pope and Ottertail counties’ Sentence to Serve programs were called upon and park friends groups volunteered their time to gather and plant seed.

“We struggled without proper equipment and staff to restore and maintain our native prairie lands,” Lueth said. “Legacy funding allows us to greatly expand our prairie restoration in parks. It also enables us to build a skilled, specialty workforce focused on prairie restoration activities.”

Lueth designs, administers and applies for project money. She also supervises the highly skilled workforce, traveling from park to park throughout the growing season conducting complex restoration projects. She describes their restoration efforts as “behind the scenery” and explains that prairie restoration is as much an art as a science – a fairly new science.

Operating “behind the scenery” requires a strategic plan made up of many intricate pieces of a puzzle. It begins with historic pieces gathered from old photos and maps that offer clues as to the pre-settlement prairie species that existed and hints as to how fire, grazing, plowing and invasive species have altered native landscapes.

These historic pieces form the planning process that aims to recreate prairies that resemble those present prior to European settlement. Using prescribed fire, cutting brush and trees and managing invasive species, the landscape is prepared for planting.

Each landscape offers its own unique combination of soils, moisture and temperature. Resource specialists nurture prairie plants growing on pieces of remnant native prairie on prairie region state park lands that stretch from Lake Bronson to Lake Carlos state parks. These remnant sites are so complex they contain upwards of 300 plant species that required centuries to diversify. A Conservation Corps of Minnesota team helps the resource crew hand pick the precious seed, some of which is from prairie plant species so rare and site-specific that it cannot be obtained from any other source.

Once the seed from remnant sites is picked, sorted and dried, it is planted so nature can begin the process of building new soil and developing historic plant relationships. With the help of resource specialists who continually monitor and manage, these areas become some of the highest quality, most species-rich restored prairies in the state.

“We are now making native prairie on our parks land,” said Chris Weir-Koetter, strategic program manager for the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division. ”The state has lost so much (native prairie) that we want to ensure the small bit that we are able to create and care for is awesome.”

Lueth agrees and adds that native prairie restoration isn’t just about the acres restored. It’s about having the resources to plan, craft and cultivate a more species-diverse prairie similar to the pre-settlement prairie that once dominated western Minnesota.

”I can now undertake more difficult restorative tasks,” Lueth said. Her motto: “If you build it and have faith in the seed, the prairie will come.”

When the prairie comes back, someday so will the native prairie wildlife. While DNR resource specialists are able to reconstruct plant communities that resemble remnant native prairies, they are just starting to determine how to restore native wildlife that requires native prairie.

The Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan is a 25-year strategy for accelerating conservation of native prairie, other grasslands, wetlands and shallow lakes in the Prairie Parkland and Tallgrass Aspen Parklands provinces of the state.

According to the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan, the tallgrass prairie once covered about one-third of Minnesota or approximately 18 million acres. Over the last 150 years, the prairie has been largely converted to row crop agriculture. The result is that most of the prairie and associated habitats are now gone, along with the bison, elk and other key species that were integral to the functional prairie system.

There are approximately 235,076 acres of remaining native prairie and prairie complexes in 71 counties. Northwestern Minnesota supports areas that retain at least some of the features of a functioning prairie system, called “prairie core areas.” These prairie core areas contain other natural communities including wetlands, aquatic systems, savannas, shrublands and a more minor component of forest.

Since the initiation of Legacy funding, the pace of native plant restoration at state parks and trails has increased 59 percent, prescribed burning has increased 34 percent and control of invasive plants has increased by more than 90 percent.

Between 2009 and 2012, DNR Parks and Trails initiated reconstruction on 2,854 acres of prairie. The northwest region resource crew was responsible for 1,031 acres (36 percent). The majority of the acres reconstructed were accomplished with Legacy funding.

The Parks and Trails Fund receives 14.25 percent of the sales tax revenue from the passage of the Legacy Amendment. The DNR and the Metropolitan Council each receive 40 percent of this fund for state and regional park and trail projects. The Parks and Trails Legacy Grant Program, which receives 20 percent of this fund, provides grants to local governments to acquire, develop, restore and maintain parks and trails of regional or statewide significance.

For more information visit the Parks and Trails Legacy Grant Program web page.

Find more information on prairie restoration and the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan.