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Working to protect the Mississippi River and its watershed in the Twin Cities area
The Hastings Sand Coulee Scientific and Natural Area recently increased from 83 to over 267 acres. The protection of an additional 185 acres of prairie and woodland along the southeast border of Hastings this June was the result of a team effort between the SNA program at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Dakota County and FMR. FMR also plans to restore and enhance the ecological communities that make this area special, and help create a continuous system of green corridors centered on the Mississippi River in the metro area.
Where can you visit the largest native prairie in Dakota County? Where can you go once a week throughout the growing season and see new plants in bloom? Where can you walk on native prairie that Native Americans and European settlers also walked on? Where can you find 14 rare species living as they have for hundreds of years? The answer to all of the questions is the Hastings Sand Coulee SNA.
SNAs are public, like parks, but are considered the highest quality and culturally significant ecological areas in the state. As such, they are afforded the highest level of protection. (Only low-impact activities, such as hiking, bird watching, nature study and photography are allowed.) The Sand Coulee SNA was designated in 2007.
What makes this site so special and unique, first and foremost, is its diverse and rare dry sand-gravel prairie. Soils in this section consist primarily of sand, making it extremely dry. (This is where the "sand" part of its name comes in; "coulee" is a term for a broad shallow valley.) The plants and animals that live here are specially adapted to the often-harsh conditions. The plants have adapted by developing deep, extensive root systems that can extend 15 feet into the soil to access any and all available soil moisture, and their leaves are often pubescent (hairy) to reduce moisture loss aboveground. Rare plant species found here include sea-beach needle grass, clasping milkweed, James’ polanisia, narrow-leaved pinweed, rhombic-petaled primrose and clustered broomrape.
In addition to the dry prairie, the new portion of the SNA is made up of many other fire-dependent plant communities, including mesic prairie, oak woodland and oak forest. As noted in the Natural Resources Management Plan recently developed by FMR ecologists Karen Schik and Joe Walton, a variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects inhabit the site, including several species of greatest conservation need (SGCN) — loggerhead shrike, blue racer, gopher (bull) snake, regal fritillary and Ottoe skipper.
The DNR's SNA program acquired the additional 185 acres in three separate transactions. First, the DNR completed an internal transfer from the Division of Fish and Wildlife to the SNA program of 80 acres containing native prairie and woodland communities from the neighboring Hastings Wildlife Management Area.
Next, in June, 80 acres from the Holst family were added. FMR staff had first reached out to Bill Holst in 2008, providing information about the prairie on his property and the conservation efforts within the Sand Coulee. FMR was then able to broker several meetings between Mr. Holst and DNR staff to work out the acquisition, and also worked with the landowner to successfully apply for funding assistance for the acquisition from the Dakota County Farmland and Natural Area Program.
Finally, the DNR acquired 25 acres from the City of Hastings. The city had originally acquired the property to manage stormwater runoff for the nearby Tuttle neighborhood. FMR has been working with the city to conduct restoration activities on their coulee property for several years, and approached city staff about selling their portion of the Sand Coulee to the DNR then assisted the DNR in the process by conducting the property's appraisal.
The permanent protection of ecologically significant places is an important component of ensuring these rare natural areas remain long into the future. However, it is only one part. Equally as important is the enhancement and management of the natural communities that are found there.
Humans have altered many of the natural processes of these historic communities. We have greatly reduced or eliminated fire, established barriers on the landscape which make the movement of animals and plants more difficult or impossible and have introduced non-native species. To maintain a diverse prairie we need to replace these processes.
To this end, over the last couple months FMR ecologists Joe Walton and Karen Schik have been developing a Natural Resource Management Plan for this new area of the SNA. Through a contract with the DNR, FMR has conducted field studies to compile information on existing natural communities, species, site conditions, problems and have developed maps and recommendations to guide future management activities at the site.
This work builds on longstanding restoration efforts in the area. For many years, FMR has partnered with a number of the sand coulee's private and public landowners, including the City of Hastings and the DNR's SNA program staff, to conduct restoration activities at the Sand Coulee. Many of our restoration activities have focused on reintroducing fire to the prairie and controlling woody and non-native plants. This restoration season recap offers an excellent overview of the types of restoration work completed at the site by both professionals and volunteers. (Volunteer opportunities in the Sand Coulee SNA, such as the fall native seed collection, are listed in our Mississippi Messages e-newsletter.)
FMR is committed to working with our partners, the private and public landowners in the Sand Coulee, to maintain and continue to improve the prairie that is found there. An important natural feature in and of itself, this site is also an important component of the Mississippi River Greenway and the Metro Conservation Corridors, making it a natural area of regional significance. These plans in turn guide FMR’s conservation efforts to protect and enhance a continuous system of corridors, centered on the Mississippi River, in the metro area.