Letting the Forest Function

By Greg and Kate Seitz, Belwin Conservancy Communications Partners

Three years ago, the first member event at the Creative Center was held on a hot July night. About 75 people walked along a bluff where a patch of oak savanna had recently been cleared of buckthorn. The views eastward, down to Lake Edith and into Wisconsin, stunned the guests who didn’t know the land contained such hidden gems.

Since 2003, the Belwin team has been working to clear the Creative Center’s 239 acres of buckthorn and other invasives, all with the goal of restoring the land to pre-settlement oak savanna and welcoming the public in to enjoy it.

Now, a major new grant from the state of Minnesota will enable Belwin to complete the initial large-scale invasive removal work at the Creative Center. Over the next three years, with $163,650 funded by the 2008 Legacy Amendment, we’ll be clearing 130 wooded acres of buckthorn and other invasive plants. This will restore diversity and balance to the ecosystem, and the area will be left in a state that Belwin’s staff can maintain far into the future.

“We’re excited about finally getting to a stage in this project where we’re turning from fighting invasives to having a conversation about how we’re going to bring the public in to enjoy this space,” says Justin Sykora, Belwin Conservancy Operations Director.

Interpretive Naturalist Lynette Anderson and Program Director Susan Haugh have already been developing special programming that celebrates the diverse landscape at the Creative Center. Bird hike attendees trek through the wetland and into the oak savanna; artist resident Rory Wakemup is using buckthorn to create his installation on the site; and Women Walking participants meander along mowed trails and sit beside a campfire in quiet contemplation.

Randy Thoreson, an Afton resident and retired National Park Service employee, recently visited the Creative Center for the first time. “It's stunningly beautiful. I was blown away by the beauty of the site and the variety of landscapes within it,” he says.

Removing invasive species will do more than enhance the visitor experience. The Belwin team expects removing buckthorn and non-native grasses to reduce erosion, benefitting Valley Creek, Lake Edith, and wetlands downstream from the property.

After invasive species are removed, a forest understory of many different types of plants will have a root system that holds soil and water.

“We’re working now to give native species a chance to acquire enough volume to out-compete the invasives,” says Anderson. “Warm season grasses like big bluestem can now grow a little higher than their invasive counterparts; they can start to crowd out cool-season invasives like foxtail.”

The work will also greatly improve the site’s benefit for wildlife, from butterflies and bumblebees to birds and mammals. The red-headed woodpecker is a species that the Belwin team keeps top-of-mind as they work to restore the Creative Center lands. This formerly threatened species relies on oak savanna for survival and Belwin’s Creative Center property is one of the largest such habitats in Minnesota.

Other bird species seen at the Creative Center include Henslow’s sparrow, lark sparrow, sedge wren, indigo bunting and eastern kingbird. These are among the largest declining bird species in North America, not just in Minnesota. Habitat is key to their survival.

The multi-year project will adjoin other lands restored over the last decade in Belwin’s Creative Center management area. It will ultimately provide a contiguous landscape of healthy natural habitat.

Sykora outlined the steps he and his team will take to complete this phase of the project. “We’ll be using heavy equipment to clear buckthorn in the winter, when the ground is frozen, to prevent damage to already loose soil. After that initial cutting, we’ll apply a series of herbicide treatments to halt the aggressive initial regrowth of invasive species. Then, where necessary, we’ll spread locally harvested seeds of native grasses, forbs, flowers, and bushes.“

Native trees and shrubs that may be used in the restoration include bur oak, silver maple, yellow birch, hackberry, tamarack, inland serviceberry, gray dogwood, red osier dogwood, and high bush cranberry.

By partnering with contractors that will perform most of the initial clearing and help manage the first wave of non-native regrowth, Belwin will get a handle on a large number of acres. After three years, its perpetual preservation will be within Belwin’s abilities.

Where Belwin has used this method in the past, staff say they have seen impressive natural regeneration, with areas returning to a state of predominantly native plants and wildlife.

“This grant takes us from what is essentially a big mess to something that we can manage,” Sykora says. “When the contractors are done, Belwin will be able to maintain the site in perpetuity, fitting future management into our team’s annual work plans.”

Belwin has found over its 45 years of land management experience that this approach is the most cost-effective way to have a significant impact on our lands.

This important project can only be accomplished thanks to funding from the Department of Natural Resources’ Conservation Partners Legacy Grant Program. The CPL grant program is part of the Outdoor Heritage Fund, created by the people of Minnesota through the 2008 Legacy Amendment. The program has been recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council and approved by the Legislature every year since 2009.

The land that will be restored is permanently protected from any development by a conservation easement with the Minnesota Land Trust. At the end of the three-year, taxpayer-funded project, the goal — as with all of Belwin’s land management work — is to let the land do what it does best: change and adapt.

Many people, including Randy Thoreson, are eager to get back out to the Creative Center to see what new programs will be possible thanks to the land management work. “There are so many opportunities here for people to enjoy and connect with nature, as well as something that support the arts,” he says. “What an amazing opportunity to create something so fantastic and so close to home.”

Belwin would like to thank the Conservation Partners Legacy Grant Program of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for funding our restoration project at the Creative Center Management Area.