Dakota County’s newest Scientific and Natural Area

[Photo: View of Sand Coulee]

A view of the new Sand Coulee Scientific and Natural Area. In the foreground, prairie including a patch of Prairie Clover. In the distance, an alafalfa field which will be restored to native prairie as part of FMR’s restoration plans.

“Tom, why don’t you just buy it from me?”

Thus started the long journey for the DNR, the Maher family and FMR, which recently ended with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources purchasing 76 acres of native prairie that will serve as the beginning of the new Sand Coulee SNA.

In 2005, Tom Lewanski stopped by the Maher home to seek permission to visit the family’s property, just a few miles south of Hastings, that contained high quality prairie. In the subsequent discussion, Tom Maher asked FMR’s Conservation Director if he was interested in buying the property from him. With this question still reverberating in his head, Tom Lewanski brought the idea to the DNR’s Scientific and Natural Areas Program. As it turned out, there was strong interest in purchasing the property. (For more information on the DNR’s SNA program, visit the program’s web site.)

From 1992 through 1994, the DNR had conducted a countywide biological survey and the Sand Coulee was identified as containing very high quality dry prairie. Prior to European settlement, Dakota County contained several hundred thousand acres of prairie. Over many centuries, the prairie community developed deep, rich and very fertile soil. As the county was settled, the prairie was quickly converted to cropland. At the time of the county biological survey, only about 550 acres of prairie still remained in Dakota County. Today, the Sand Coulee contains the largest prairie remnant in the county.

With this data in hand, it was not a hard sell to get the DNR interested in permanently protecting this prairie. FMR’s role in this project was to serve as liaison between the landowner and the staff from the DNR and to apply for funding to help make the project happen. Tom Lewanski submitted applications to the Dakota County Farmland and Natural Areas Program and the DNR’s Metro Greenways Program, both of which contributed funds toward the purchase of this beautiful prairie.

With the purchase completed, FMR’s role will not stop. “We feel it’s important to stay engaged in project long-term,” explains Karen Schik, FMR’s Ecologist and Project Manager. “It’s wonderful that the property is protected from development and mining, but we want to stay involved to help restore and manage the site to protect and improve the ecological health of the prairie.” Karen developed a natural resource management plan for the prairie when the Mahers owned it. This plan will serve as a guide in the restoration activities. She goes on to say, “A portion of the site was cropped and pines were planted several decades ago. We want to manage the site for the long-term health of this rare prairie.”

FMR wishes to thank the Maher family, Lee Markell and Peggy Booth of the DNR’s SNA Program, and Al Singer of the Dakota County Farmland and Natural Areas Program for their support, patience, and perseverance during this project. Watch for information on the dedication ceremony for the Sand Coulee SNA in future Mississippi Messages.

To learn more about the Sand Coulee and FMR’s work to restore and protect it, visit our 2004 feature story on the project. To see one example of the Sand Coulee’s diverse inhabitants, check out our May 2007 Featured Photo.