It's not easy to find an area of untouched land these days, especially so close to the metro. Before Europeans settled in Dakota County, the majority of the land here was covered in prairie. Today there are only small bits of that prairie left intact; of those areas, only pieces are currently protected. The largest section of protected prairie is located just southeast of Hastings, and it just got a lot bigger.
A scientific and natural area (SNA) is state-owned land that is managed in a way that protects existing native plant and animal species located there. They are open to the public, but land use is limited.
"They're really there to give examples of what the natural land was," said Tom Lewanski, conservation director for the Friends of the Mississippi River.
For that reason, while people are welcome to walk on the land and wander through the habitat, they are not allowed to bring dogs, vehicles or bicycles onto the land. Camping is also not allowed, and the state does not develop any trails on the properties.
There are two SNAs in Hastings - the Hastings SNA, located along Ravenna Trail east of the city, and the Sand Coulee SNA, located southeast of the city north and south of Highway 316. The Sand Coulee SNA started out as a 76-acre plot, but it's grown.
Early this year, the City of Hastings sold a 25-acre section to the DNR, recognizing that city staff weren't equipped to properly manage the area. Also this year was added 80 acres of a wildlife management area located near Tuttle Drive. Wildlife management areas are designated for public hunting, Lewanski explained, but because of how Hastings has grown around the area, it was determined the land use was no longer compatible.
"It really wasn't serving the purpose for hunting anymore," he said.
The eastern half of that 160-acre site was transferred to the Sand Coulee SNA. The SNA gained another 80 acres when a local landowner sold part of his property to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to be added to the Sand Coulee.
The new additions bring the Sand Coulee SNA to 268 acres. New signs will be posted to mark the boundaries of the newest parts of the Sand Coulee when the state government shutdown is ended and DNR staff can return to work.
Visitors to the area will see several native plant species and possibly a few rare species. Some of the species growing there are porcupine grass, which has needled seeds that literally drill themselves into the soil; purple vervain; prairie larkspur; long-bearded hawkweed; puccoon, a yellow-flowered plant that American Indians used to make dyes; New Jersey tea; June grass; and more.
"This is pretty diverse," Lewanski said.
One of the reasons the DNR, FMR, Dakota County and others are so keen to expand areas such as the Sand Coulee is because of a greenway plan they established with area cities and townships several years ago. The plan identified areas around the county that have high diversity of plant and animal species, areas with perhaps steep slopes or wetland areas or that would be subject to aquifer contamination - in other words, areas where they wouldn't want development to occur. These areas became green corridors, connecting natural areas and creating pathways for species to travel along. The Sand Coulee is one of these corridors.
Part of Lewanski's job is working with landowners who interested in selling or donating their land or going into a conservation easement agreement with the county.