A five- to eight-year project to transform more of Eden Prairie into what it looked like hundreds if not thousands of years ago is taking root just a few yards from Flying Cloud Airport.
When the work by Hennepin County in concert with the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) is complete, a parcel of just over two acres will look a lot like the 126 acres nearby: remnant prairie, never cultivated for crops or even turned over with a plow.
And, when the combined acreage is a sea of native grasses and wildflowers, Eden Prairie will be home to one of the largest tracts of remnant prairie lands in Hennepin County, according to Matthew Stasica, the county’s land conservationist and agricultural inspector.
“It will pretty much be a continuous sea of prairie, an abundance of wildflowers and a mix of short- to medium-height grasses,” he said.
Locally, the prairie landscape has special significance because of the name Eden Prairie, bestowed by East Coast writer Elizabeth Fries Ellet, who traveled here and proclaimed it the garden spot of the territory in her travelogue book.
And, prairies in Minnesota once covered nearly 30,000 square miles, a little more than one-third of the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
But the DNR points out that only 1-2 percent of that historical area remains, much of it degraded or threatened, which makes restoration projects a high priority.
In 2018, Hennepin County received a grant from the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council – monies from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment to the state constitution, passed by voters in 2008 – to restore and enhance critical habitat. More than $34,000 of that has been allocated to the Eden Prairie project.
What also makes the local prairie restoration project unique is that it surrounds what was once a scenic overlook constructed during the era of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the ambitious employment and infrastructure program created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935, during the bleakest years of the Great Depression.
The finely-crafted stone overlook called Lookout Park Wayside, constructed in 1938, provided a welcome respite and panoramic view of the Minnesota River Valley to travelers crossing Minnesota.
It is in ruins now, on property owned by MAC, and off-limits to the public because of aeronautical safety considerations. Once surrounded by weeds, invasive plants, and an occasional beer can, the former overlook is carefully being tended to not only look like grasslands, but to have what the DNR describes as a complex ecosystem: one that allows plants, fungi, insects, birds, mammals, and many other organisms to interact with each other in a web of intricate relationships developed over hundreds to thousands of years.
A new overlook from which this area is visible lies just 1,600 feet to the west. Called the Minnesota River Vista Overlook and built by the City of Eden Prairie, it is accessible by using a trail on nearby Charlson Road. The trail passes beneath Flying Cloud Drive, leading to the small overlook with panoramic views of the river valley.
Restoring the two acres to prairie is a painstaking process for the county. It starts with removing invasive plants and continues with nursing the soil back to health using cover crops that decompose and build up micro-organisms; seeding the area with seeds from surrounding remnant prairie; occasional prescribed burns that reduce the built-up dead vegetation and stimulate prairie plant growth and seed production; occasional spot treatment of any invasive or noxious weeds, and more.
Critical to success is keeping people off the MAC-owned property because of the damage caused by foot traffic, Stasica says. It’s common for them to encounter people walking the site, and there has even been evidence of bonfires.
“In order for the restoration of the prairie area to succeed, it needs to be left undisturbed,” Stasica noted. “So, we’re encouraging others to instead appreciate the scenery from public lands close to the area.”
In addition to the Minnesota River Vista Overlook, those nearby public lands include the Prairie Bluff Conservation Area, a city-owned, 56-acre parcel east of Spring Road and north of Flying Cloud Drive. It adds to the area’s natural and scenic views of the river valley, portions of which are owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, in turn, is part of a corridor of land and water that stretches for nearly 70 miles between Bloomington and Henderson, Minn.
So, while it takes years of work and ongoing maintenance to restore these sites to prairie, the result is a landscape that is more than just grass and flowers, but an ecosystem rich in diversity.
“By restoring this area,” Stasica noted, “we will be providing more habitat to the wildlife and pollinators in the area.
“The prairie – it always changes,” he added, noting that new wildflowers and grasses will emerge over time. “It’s amazing. It never looks the same, year after year.”
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