How we choose our conservation and restoration sites

Autumn bluff and blue river

Pine Bend Bluffs SNA in Inver Grove Heights was our first major conservation project in the 1990s. The story of our work there highlights some of the strategies we still use to guide our protection and restoration efforts today.

FMR was established in 1993 as the conservation and advocacy group for the new Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, the only national park dedicated to the Mississippi River in the United States. This 72-mile stretch of river runs through the Twin Cities metro area from Dayton to Hastings.

Known as MNRRA, the designation guides land use within the corridor and allows for habitat conservation and management. But the designation does not preempt existing land ownership and use; as FMR and its partners protect land, we work only with willing sellers.

Because the health of the river depends on how we treat the lands around it, in addition to the official river park corridor, FMR’s conservation program has expanded to include important tributaries and lands that drain to the metro river, also known as the metro river watershed

We've permanently protected 45 sites and restored 62 sites since 1993. (See our conservation map.) Today we actively restore and maintain more than 2,500 acres in rural and urban places from Elk River to the Hastings area, engaging thousands of community volunteers and partners in their care.

Starting with Pine Bend

In the beginning, the land protection program had just one staff person, so we needed to target our efforts to have the greatest impact on wildlife habitat and water quality. 

Dakota County stood out as one place that still retained important habitat along the river and its tributaries. But the county was also experiencing rapid growth and development that presented threats to those natural areas. 

Biological surveys pointed to the Pine Bend Bluffs area as one with outstanding biological diversity, and it became a key starting place for our land protection and restoration efforts. This roughly 1,300-acre area at the bend of the river in Rosemount and Inver Grove Heights was owned by several people and institutions, including Macalester College, Flint Hills Resources and a number of families.

FMR reached out to those landowners at Pine Bend Bluffs and eventually brokered introductions to potential partners who could buy the land and preserve it, either as a public natural area or as a conservation easement that would offer protection from development. 

These outreach efforts resulted in the 2003 establishment of the Pine Bend Bluffs Scientific and Natural Area, owned by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

At present this area comprises nearly 300 acres of bluff land hills and ravines that are open to the public. It's one of our most popular volunteer sites owing to its stunning views of the Upper Mississippi River, rare plants and renowned birding opportunities. 

Through FMR’s efforts over the past 20 years, hundreds of  acres adjacent to the Scientific and Natural Area (or SNA) have also been protected. Our ecological restoration continues throughout the bluffland in areas of Pine Bend owned by our partners Macalester College and Flint Hills Resources.

Conservation criteria 

Since that first project at Pine Bend Bluffs, we've selected priority areas for land protection, restoration and management in much the same way.

When considering whether to preserve an area, we ask questions that include (but are not limited to):

  • Is the area regionally significant ecologically or considered a biodiversity "hotspot?" Does the land provide a connection to other natural areas?

  • Does the land connect to the Mississippi River through its watershed?

  • Is the property important for water quality protection?

  • Are rare plants and/or animals present on the property?

  • Does the property provide a large "block" of contiguous habitat or is it strategic for the conservation of certain Species of Greatest Conservation Need?

  • Does housing or industrial development pose an imminent threat to the property?

  • Would the protection of the property contribute to the success of a partner's vision for a refuge, park or natural area? (Often, the partner is the landowner — a private family, or more often, a city or park board.)

  • Is the area home to sacred or unique cultural features?

  • Does the area provide access to members of the community who are seeking public spaces to recreate or spend time in nature?

Within FMR, the Land Conservation team coordinates with our River Corridor and Stewardship & Education teams. Our River Corridor program may work with community members to promote conservation zoning at a site, while the Stewardship and Education program actively recruits volunteers to assist with invasive species removal and other habitat restoration tasks at the sites that FMR has helped to protect. 

Keeping it connected

Another key FMR strategy is to work within the construct of the Metro Conservation Corridors, a framework for wildlife and water quality benefits developed in 2003 by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 

FMR serves on the steering committee for this newly energized group of professionals in the greater Twin Cities metro area, now called the Metro Conservation Network. Partners include the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, private ecological consulting firms and county park and planning staff.

FMR projects are located within these corridors, helping to create and enhance natural greenways across the landscape. 

While our work started in Dakota County, we've expanded to southern Washington County, the main stem of the river through the Twin Cities, and far upstream where the Elk River meets the Mississippi. 

In addition to Pine Bend Bluffs SNA, FMR has facilitated the establishment of the 263-acre Hastings Sand Coulee SNA, a 300-acre unit of Gores Pool Wildlife Management Area (WMA), the 400-acre Hampton Woods WMA, the 76-acre Chimney Rock SNA, and the 336-acre William H Houlton Conservation Area, along with numerous conservation easements on private lands.

FMR also works closely with neighborhood and municipal partners to conserve smaller patches of native habitat that can be vitally important to pollinators and other species that are rare or declining, or that connect larger natural areas. Projects like our 2-acre prairie restoration at Ole Olson Park in North Minneapolis and the pockets of woodland and prairie habitat at Nicollet Island in Minneapolis make a significant impact for wildlife in our urban corridor.

Protection isn’t enough

Once a key natural area has been identified or protected, we work with the property owner and other partners to restore the site's ecological health.

Land conservation used to be much more about buying land or buying an easement over land to protect it in perpetuity. 

But the land protection and restoration community now realizes that it's important to have active restoration and management programs in place for those protected properties. Just protecting land doesn't make that land quality habitat. We also need to support the native species by eliminating competition from invasive plants and trees, and reintroducing natural processes such as fire and other disturbances.

Just like the National Park Service doesn't own property in our local national park (well, other than 6 acres at Coldwater Spring in Minneapolis), FMR doesn't own any property. In the spirit of our local "partnership park," we partner with cities, counties, state agencies, corporations and private individuals to both protect and restore areas that are important for the river, our wildlife, waters and communities. 

Get involved

We're grateful to partners and members who make our land protection and restoration work possible. Join us as a member or volunteer to protect the diversity of our natural heritage and the health and abundance of the wildlife with whom we share this river.