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Sand Coulee restoration project in its final stage

The east slope of the Sand Coulee valley is covered in oak trees. Last year, the ground beneath the canopy was packed with buckthorn, some of which was 60 years old. With that removed, there’s now room for native groundcover to grow back. Star Gazette photos by Katrina Styx

It takes a lot of work to reverse about 150 years of degrading habitat.

Since 2012, members of the Friends of the Mississippi River organization have been working to do just that: return a 268-acre piece of land to its native condition.

The Hastings Sand Coulee Scientific and Natural Area is located just off the southeast corner of Hastings and is the largest native prairie remnant in Dakota County. As an SNA, it receives the state’s highest levels of protection; there are no trails cut through the property, no facilities and vehicles are not permitted. Visitors aren’t allowed to hunt, camp, picnic or swim, pets are not allowed and visitors aren’t even permitted to collect plants, animals or rocks from SNAs.

But what the SNAs do offer is a rare view of what the area was before settlers arrived and began transforming nature according to their needs.

In 2011, the Hastings Sand Coulee SNA got a big addition of land. A wildlife management area (WMA) was added to the SNA along with some pieces sold by the City of Hastings and private landowners.

But the new additions were somewhat less than native and natural. In the WMA portion, rows of spruce trees had been planted as cover for animals, and non-native grass had taken over. Some of the land had been used for crop farming. And what wasn’t severely disturbed was extensively overgrown with exotic plants, largely buckthorn and smooth brome grass. Some of the buckthorn plants had been growing for 60 to 70 years, said FMR ecologist Joe Walton, who counted the rings in one of the buckthorn stumps.

In 2012, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources hired FMR to handle restoration activity on the newly acquired SNA land. FMR had developed a management plan and set up restoration activities over three phases. The first task involved the WMA area and grassland south of East 31st Street. The spruce trees were cut down and burned, the ground was plowed up and a mix of native plant species was planted. Growth is well under way now, Walton said.

“It’s just an amazing, huge difference,” he said.

Phase two dealt with some of the more southern portions of the site, continuing the removal of invasive species and conducting prescribed burns.

Phase three took on the easternmost section, including a wide valley, its slopes and some flatland at the top. Over the winter, FMR hired crews to cut down and remove the overgrowth of woody brush in the woodland area. In some areas, a forestry mower was used to pulverize the stumps in the ground in the hopes of preventing buckthorn from resprouting. Once the cutting and mowing was done, the area was re-seeded with seeds from nearby sources. Walton envisions gathering volunteers to collect seeds from one part of the Sand Coulee to plant in the area being restored, so seeds stay as local as possible.

The best way to control invasive species is through controlled burning, Walton said. FMR wanted to burn some areas this spring, but was unable to do so because of unfavorable weather conditions. The plan now is to conduct controlled burns this fall or next spring, he said. For now, Walton is keeping a close eye on what’s growing back. Although some invasive species are still present and some of the buckthorn has resprouted, he’s encouraged by a number of native species that appear to be doing well this summer. Earlier this week, he spotted plants like the partridge pea, white snakeroot, silky prairie clover, little blue stem and big blue stem, lead plant and more.

Continued management will be necessary, Walton said, to keep the SNA in native condition.

“If you do nothing, it will continue on a trajectory of degradation,” he said.

When it’s all done, the area will feature native sand prairie, savannah and oak woodland. But the process could take several years. It takes about five to seven years for the native plants to reestablish themselves in an area, Walton said. For the first several years, the area will likely look weedy, but as FMR experienced at a Flint Hills Refinery restoration site, a major shift can be expected at about the five-year mark.

The whole Sand Coulee restoration project is being funded by the Outdoor Heritage Fund and the Environment and Natural Resource Trust Fund, which provided $160,000 available through June 30, 2017.

For more about the Hastings Sand Coulee SNA, go to us/snas or