It was a jubilant moment. Well, as jubilant as is allowed at your average Eden Prairie City Council meeting.
There were balloons, a standing ovation, and fists thrown into the air. All in celebration of the city’s acquisition of more than 30 acres from Hennepin County, at the cost of about $600,000, that would become the Birch Island Woods Conservation Area, located near Eden Prairie’s northern boundary with Minnetonka.
“Without your support, in the ninth inning, with two out, this might not have worked,” activist Jeff Strate told the council.
The moment was Dec. 4, 2001, and it was not the end of the line for the many residents who worked to preserve a wild-but-serene woods shoe-horned between industry, suburban homes, highways, and other testaments to Eden Prairie’s rapid growth and development.
Later, 4-5 additional adjacent acres would be acquired in a 2005 citywide park-bond referendum, and residents would continue to volunteer to plant trees, remove buckthorn, pick up litter, and raise dollars for improvements of the wooded area.
But Dec. 7, 2021, does seem like an end-of-the-line moment. In the same City Council chambers that hosted a more raucous huzzah 20 years ago, city officials accepted as a donation the remaining $14,000 in funds raised by Friends of the Birch Island Woods and pledged to continue guarding and improving the conservation area.
It signals an end to the formal, award-winning, nonprofit Friends organization.
“We got the major things done,” said Terry Picha of Picha Greenhouse & Farms, whose farm property adjacent to Birch Island Woods has been owned by five generations of Pichas, dating to 1903, and still has some of the original farm buildings.
Picha’s annual plant sale for many years was the chief fundraiser for the Friends of Birch Island Woods, the group of Eden Prairie and Minnetonka residents that formed in 1998 and campaigned to keep the woods as a natural sanctuary.
More recently, the plant sale has benefited Camp Eden Wood, the True Friends-run camp for developmentally-disabled persons that – like the Picha Farm and Birch Island Lake – borders the Birch Island Woods, adding to its uniquely undeveloped character.
“A lot of this area isn’t buildable – and it’s beautiful in there,” said Picha.
He is quick to acknowledge the grassroots history of Birch Island Woods, the mobilization of neighbors far and wide. Early members were known to spend hours standing along a nearby regional trail to collect signatures in support of the woods’ purchase.
“We wanted to make sure this area could be saved for future use as green space,” Picha explained.
Echoing that acknowledgment of citizen activism is Jay Lotthammer, director of parks and recreation for Eden Prairie.
“They didn’t just save it and walk away,” he said, noting the group’s work over the years to plant additional trees and remove invasive plant species.
The more than $14,000 recently donated to the city by the Friends group is important, he said – one project that’s envisioned is an interpretive sign that explains the importance of Birch Island Woods and the citizen campaign to save it – but just as important, Lotthammer added, is the Friends-generated awareness of the area’s value.
At nearly 36 acres, Birch Island Woods is among the smallest of Eden Prairie’s 13 conservation areas. These areas, for the most part, are left in their natural state rather than actively developed as parks. Some have great topography, scenic views, or unique biospheres. One aspect of Birch Island Woods Conservation Area that sets it apart is its close proximity to intensive land uses, including an asphalt plant just a stone’s throw away.
In that sense, natural areas like the Birch Island Woods Conservation Area are places where we escape the hustle and bustle of traffic, malls, cul-de-sacs, and miles and miles of suburban houses.
“People say, “Gosh, I can’t believe I’m in the city,’” Lotthammer says about these nature havens.
And, in the case of Birch Island Woods, the preservation-minded residents whose work we all now enjoy can say, “We did this!”
Mark Weber is executive director of the Eden Prairie Community Foundation, and Jay Lotthammer is a member of its board of directors. Jeff Strate, mentioned in this article, is a member of the board of directors of Eden Prairie Local News.
Editor’s Note: The article was updated to state that there are 13 conservation areas in Eden Prairie, not five as was originally reported.