The most biodiverse part of Minnesota, the Southeast is a special place for many Minnesotans. Unfortunately years of development and parcelization have impacted this unique habitat, and put ground water supplies at risk of impairment. Fortunately private landowners throughout the Southeast are stepping up to restore and protect the places they cherish. Just this month Mike Larsen and Linda Nelson joined the hundreds of individuals and families who have protected their natural land through a conservation easement with the Minnesota Land Trust.
Growing up in the Albert Lea area, both Mike and Linda were familiar with the oak savannas and prairies of Southeastern Minnesota, but watched as they were slowly eroded by intensive land uses that disrupted the health and function of these natural systems. In 2004 they decided to do something about disappearing habitat and purchased a 74-acre parcel adjacent to the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area (WMA) with the express purpose of restoring it.
Since that time they’ve poured their hearts and sweat into the land, painstakingly developing highly diverse seed mixes, fighting invasive species, and bringing back a landscape that has been absent for over 100 years. With the work has come learning, too. “[The work] has meant learning about the land and the trees, as well as insects,” says Linda. “We’re learning how to keep nudging this back towards its best self. We made some mistakes at first – and we’re still learning!”
“We are guided not only by healing the Land, but healing our relationship with the Land,” adds Mike.
Today, to walk the property is to be transported back to a time when herds of bison wandered the prairies and fires swept through the grasses to restore and reinvigorate the vast savannas of our state. Henslow’s sparrow have been spotted nesting on the property, a rare refuge for this elusive and endangered bird species. The small oak trees are beginning to assert themselves, having survived their first burns in the spring.
“The importance of this property to the integrity of the natural systems in the Southeast can’t be overstated,” says Nick Bancks, program manager for the Minnesota Land Trust. “This land helps buffer important public lands, providing contiguous habitat for important birds, insects, and other wildlife in a rapidly developing part of our state.”
Southeast Minnesota is a critical flyway for a number of migratory bird species, and the numerous cold-water trout stream that cover the landscape provide important habitat as well as recreation opportunities for residents and tourists alike. This most biodiverse area of the state is a high priority for the Land Trust, which has protected nearly 11,000 acres in 75 projects since 1993 in the area.
“Working with private individuals like Mike and Linda is the best way for us to protect these important natural assets, while still ensuring whoever owns the land in the future can continue to use and enjoy it,” says Nick. “By working with the Land Trust, this land will stay in private hands and Mike and Linda can continue to pay property taxes, managing and helping to heal the land for years to come.”
“Our hope is that this keeps growing; that it becomes more of what it could be,” says Linda. “That the red-headed woodpecker returns, the Henslow’s sparrow stays and thrives.” And for neighbors considering their own easement; “Just do it! Because you’ll figure it out. Talk with the Land Trust, and you’ll get clear if it’s right for you through your conversations.”