Preserved parcels offer glimpse of Minnesota gone by

Prairie smoke
Prairie smoke dots the 564-acre Blanket Flower Prairie Scientific and Natural Area in Clay County near Barnesville, Minn.
Dan Olson | MPR News

There's not much left of Minnesota's natural landscape the way it looked before white settlement. Visitors to Minnesota's 161 scientific and natural areas, or SNAs, can catch glimpses.

Some of the views include tall pines ringing lakes of sky-blue water, or endless bogs, or prairies that stretch to the horizon. Other views, like those at Blanket Flower Prairie SNA on the western edge of Minnesota, take a little more effort to appreciate.

Blanket Flower Prairie's 564 acres are bordered on one side by a gravel pit and on another by dozens of wind turbines. The unspoiled view is the one the visitor sees when he stops, crouches down and allows his eyes to adjust.

Shelley Hedtke walked through the preserve.
Shelley Hedtke of the Minnesota DNR walked through the Blanket Flower Prairie Scientific and Natural area in Clay County in May. Several dozen wind turbines abut the protected area's border.
Dan Olson | MPR News

Treasures begin to emerge.

"Oh, look at that," says Shelley Hedtke, helping to guide a visitor's eye. "This is just a darling little flower called the Hoary Puccoon, and it's just got this intense orangey color to it."

"This is a bee balm, a beautiful kind of flowery purple, and the bees go crazy for it."

"Is that a vole? I'm guessing it's a prairie vole, it's got a short little tail."

Hedtke works for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which manages these protected areas.

Blanket Flower Prairie, on the edge of the Alexandria moraine, is part of what was once the beach of a glacial lake. Eleven thousand years ago, Hedtke says, this is where the action was.

"This was as far as the glacier pushed, and when it receded, it dropped all its glacial till," she says. "That's why you see those very large rocks up there."

Minnesota's native prairie
Less than 2 percent of Minnesota prairie that existed in the 1850s remain today.
Graphic by William Lager | MPR News | Source: Minnesota DNR

The Blanket Flower Prairie is gently rolling countryside that is home to hundreds of animal and plant species.

"It's got kind of swales and dips and doodles and potholes in it, and that's why we call this a transition zone," she says. "It's a transition between straight prairie and woods."

The parcel is named for the tall grass prairie plant that explodes with a yellow and red blossom this time of year. The blanket flower is a main source of food for the Dakota Skipper, a butterfly on the federal endangered species list.

Some of this parcel is undisturbed prairie — but it's not exactly a wilderness. Farmers planted fields and grazed livestock on pieces of the land. These days, aggregate mines dot the area.

A couple of decades ago, the property owner considered selling some of this land for gravel mining. The he cut a deal with the DNR and Clay County. The state agency bought the land for $365,000.

Such parcels preserve what the land looked like before white settlement. The DNR says it wants to create thousands more, but the acquisition budget of just over $1 million can only pay for a handful each year.

Hedtke says the state's natural areas enjoy a high level of protection.

"You're going to have to go around this," she says. "If you want to put in a pipeline, if you want to put in a utility ... you can't come across this property."

Clarification (July 21, 2015): The DNR purchased the original parcel of land for the Blanket Flower Prairie SNA for $365,000, then purchased adjacent parcels later for a total of $751,000. An earlier version of this story was unclear on that point. The story has been updated.

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