The four and a half miles of trails are perfect for a walk or for cross-country skiing in the winter. Like all of our preserve, Stagecoach Prairies is also a living, breathing, and changing place. This winter we began a large restoration project that will improve the natural area for the wildlife that rely on it and make it an even better place to visit for decades to come.
The tallgrass prairies and gently rolling landscape of Stagecoach Prairies is filled with wildflowers and ground-nesting grassland birds in the summer months. In the fall, these prairies turn from lush green to deep purple and then golden as the grasses become quiescent. The Stagecoach Prairies Natural Area is a wonderful place to visit any time of year and especially amazing when you consider that not long ago this land supported only row crops.
The Stagecoach Prairies Natural Area is located on Stagecoach Trail between Afton and the Interstate. There is a small parking area located on 11th Street. From this entrance, there are 4.5 miles of approachable walking trails throughout the property. These trails explore the prairies of this natural area and are marked with points of interest. Be sure to pick up a Map & Guide from the sign by the parking area.
This winter we have been very actively restoring a large part of this natural area. This is an excellent opportunity to see how a restoration project works and changes with time.
For the enjoyment of everyone, we ask you to refrain from the following when visiting the Stagecoach Prairies Natural Area: fires, littering, camping, hunting, horses, off-leash dogs, motorized vehicles, picnicking, weapons, removal of vegetation or picking flowers. Belwin Conservancy property is only open during daylight hours.
Dogs are permitted at the Stagecoach Prairies Natural Area provided that they remain on a leash at all times and all dog waste is picked up and discarded off-site (not discarded off of trail). This property is principally managed for grassland bird habitat. These are threatened animals and off-leash dogs are disruptive to them.
The landscape of the Stagecoach Prairies Natural Area that you see today is a product of its history. Tens of thousands of years ago, the glaciers that moved through this region created not only the St. Croix River Valley, but also the gently rolling hills of this area. This natural landscape in turn dictated its cultural uses.
The large flats and gentle topography made for extraordinary cropland. This area was settled early and farmed intensely. The prairies were plowed under and eventually only crops remained. Many farmers then battled chronic erosion problems and could do nothing more than watch as precious topsoil flowed away with every passing rainstorm. This left deep scars in the landscape, while small wetlands were buried under acres of soil.
To combat soil loss, the U.S. government recommended planting pine or other fast growing trees on hillsides and other difficult spots. These trees are harvestable, hold the soil, and create a windbreak. It is obvious in historical photos that while this area was once very open, pine was planted in the 1950s leading to the landscape we see today.
At the time the Belwin Conservancy purchased the Stagecoach Prairies Natural Area, it was still in active production. The eastern portion was purchased from John Sauers in 1990 and the western half from Jack and Emma Herrick in 1995. Restoration efforts began immediately. Prairie Restorations Inc. was brought in to restore the fields to native tallgrass prairie. Today, decades later, these grasslands are fine examples of well-established restored tallgrass prairie.
In the meantime, the red pine planted at Stagecoach Prairies grew quickly and did its job well. Erosion all but disappeared and the plantations blocked the wind completely. Although it addressed one problem, the pine itself left a different kind of scar on the landscape.
Before settlement, this landscape was almost entirely prairie dotted with the occasional oak tree. The plants and animals that called this place home relied on the prairie for their food and their shelter. Pine does not occur naturally in this area; the regular fires of the prairie historically kept it at bay. Pine trees provide no food and don’t provide suitable shelter. They also change the soil chemistry and shade out native species. As a result, though pine forests may be wonderful places to visit – they have cool and open understories – the plants and animals native to this region cannot live in them.
In 2008, the Belwin Conservancy began an ambitious savanna restoration at our Lake Edith Natural Area. Thanks to a grant awarded by the Minnesota DNR, the Belwin Conservancy was able to hire contractors to help clear buckthorn and other weedy trees from the site. This material was then hauled away to be used to generate biomass energy at the District Energy St. Paul plant. Thanks to that grant, the Belwin Conservancy was able to restore nearly 80 acres of endangered oak savanna in one season.
To build upon this success, the Belwin Conservancy was awarded another grant by the DNR in 2010. This grant supports the harvest of woody material and the restoration of native ecosystems at our Stagecoach Prairies Natural Area. This winter, contractors began working by cutting woody debris and inappropriate trees. Many of the trees being removed are those planted to stabilize slopes in the 1950s, including several large expanses of red pine plantation.
Unlike at our Lake Edith Natural Area, much of the timber harvested at Stagecoach Prairies is high quality pine. These trees will be milled, while the noxious woody species will be harvested and used as a biomass fuel source. At the time of this writing, the trees have been cut and are in the middle of being processed and moved.
Already, the Stagecoach Prairies Natural Area feels more like the rolling prairie that it originally was. The Belwin Conservancy plans to spend the next several years working to establish native prairie where the trees once stood. Once mature, these restored prairies will be maintained through regular controlled burns to keep invasive weeds from re-colonizing.
Standing near the top of a newly cleared hillside on the eastern side of the Natural Area, it is already possible to see all the way across the property and beyond to the Bissell Mounds in the distance. In just a few more years, you will be able to walk to this spot and stand amidst a sea of wildflowers and prairie grasses, a restoration of both the land and the soul.