From prairie to farm and back again

Houlton Conservation Area

These expansive fields along the river will be coming up prairie in spring 2018.

A 335-acre conservation area with a 180-acre blooming prairie in the heart of a city is a rarity, to put it lightly. But with support from the city and the local community, that’s exactly what FMR is helping to create at the confluence of the Elk and Mississippi rivers at the William H. Houlton Conservation Area in Elk River.

The size and scope of this transformation make it one of our most ambitious projects yet, as well as a must-see for Twin Cities river lovers.  

It takes a village

In 2014, FMR partnered with the City of Elk River, the Trust for Public Land, and others to secure funding to purchase and permanently protect the site. Next came the development of a very ambitious management plan, first to restore 90 acres of floodplain forest around the property’s periphery, and then to return roughly 180 acres of native prairie to the corn and soy fields and surrounding degraded grasslands formerly grazed by cattle and horses. 

Elk River High School’s AP Biology class has been helping to guide the restoration. Each spring since 2016, students have collected data on plants, animals, water quality, and other research topics that they report back to FMR to help us plan and track the effects of our work.

In 2017, the site began to look very different, with crews removing thick stands of buckthorn, honeysuckle, and other invasive woody species from the majority of the property. We also held our first volunteer event at Houlton, with over 40 people braving the winter cold to pile and burn the invasive brush.

We're also proud to have helped establish another friends group: Friends of the William H. Houlton Conservation Area, a growing group of dedicated volunteers that maintains the property alongside the city. 

Visit or volunteer!

This year, we hope to see the first prairie plants sprouting and flowering in the prairie, and native shrubs and wildflowers returning to the forest understory. We'll be sure to post photos on and our facebook page this spring as a cue to visit. 

We also look forward to partnering with the new friends of Houlton group and, thanks to funding from the Three Rivers Community Foundation, holding another public event here later this year. If you’d like to join us for habitat restoration outings or other events at this site, let us know! Email FMR Volunteer Coordinator Amy Kilgore at

25 Special Places

Houlton is part of FMR's 25 Special Places Map, an ongoing project throughout 2018 to celebrate FMR's silver anniversary year and the metro Mississippi River. Monthly map additions and features will be announced in upcoming Mississippi Messages.