Giants Of The Prairie

A dried milkweed pod opens to release tiny fairy-like seeds
A dried milkweed pod opens to release tiny fairy-like seeds

As we lie on our backs in the grass, the warm September sun overhead makes me drowsy. The prairie rises up on either side of the trail, hiding us almost completely from anyone more than a few feet away. Little bluestem, turkey’s foot, bee balm, coneflower – the tall grasses and flower stems wave in the breeze. He tickles my nose with a seed head and I jump up laughing. Further down the trail, we find a dried milkweed pod and pull it open. The silken seeds inside rise up into the air like stars or tiny fairies floating on the wind. Today, we are the only giants in the prairie.

When we think about the history of the St. Croix River valley, we think about newly cut trees floating downriver from the north, giving rise to milling towns like Marine and Stillwater. When European settlers first arrived in the lower St. Croix Valley, however, the land was covered in prairie and oak savanna, with only scattered deciduous woods, mostly around lakes and wetlands and in the river floodplain. By 1970, most of the land in Washington County had been logged, plowed under for farming or leveled for development. Today, only small, remnant parcels of prairie remain on land too steep or rocky to farm. The pattern is the same elsewhere across the U.S., with less than 0.1% remaining of what were once millions of acres of tallgrass prairie, making it the most endangered ecosystem in the world.

A group of local residents hike through Belwin's prairie during a workshop on rural land management.
A group of local residents hike through Belwin’s prairie during a workshop on rural land management.

In 1970, Charlie and Lucy Bell set aside 200 acres of land along Valley Creek in Afton so that it could be preserved for future generations and used as a teaching resource. Today, the Belwin Conservancy has grown to include 1,364 acres of oak savanna, woodlands, tallgrass prairie, wetlands and fens. In 2008, Belwin Conservancy introduced bison to their prairie for the first time. The bison, which spend their winters at NorthStar Bison in Rice Lake, WI, are released into the prairie every year at the beginning of the summer and then rounded up again in the late fall. While on the Belwin property, their hooves work the soil while they graze the land. The bison need almost nothing from humans to survive but play an important role in the prairie ecosystem, helping native wildflowers and birds there to thrive.

Yellow coneflower in a Stillwater Twp. prairie.
Yellow coneflower in a Stillwater Twp. prairie.

Elsewhere in Washington County, the Washington Conservation District has been working with private landowners to restore large lawns and fallow fields to prairie as well. People like the idea of creating habitat for wildlife, birds and pollinators, but also the fact that prairie roots hold tight to the earth, helping rainwater to soak into the ground and preventing soil from washing away. In some parts of the county, the local watershed districts offer grants to covert lawn or active cropland to prairie as a way to protect lakes, rivers and streams from erosion and runoff pollution. Over the past decade, parcels of restored prairie have begun to spring up in increasing numbers across the landscape.

A volunteer shows off bison fur and bones to children waiting to watch the release.
A volunteer shows off bison fur and bones to children waiting to watch the release.

On Saturday, June 11, the ground in the Belwin prairie will again shake as a truck pulls up, opens its doors and releases a herd of bison with thundering hooves. The public is invited to watch from a parking lot and viewing platform along Division St. in Afton. These giants will roam the prairie for the rest of the summer, a captivating reminder of how the land around us once looked 200 years ago.

To learn more about planting a prairie of your own, contact the Washington Conservation District at www.mnwcd.org or 651-330-8220 x.35.

Belwin Bison Release: Saturday, June 11 at noon. Free. Activities begin at 11am. Park at the Lucy Winton Bell Athletic Fields, 15601 Hudson Rd., West Lakeland. More information at www.belwin.org/bison.