One of the most panoramic views of the Upper Mississippi River Valley comes at a little-known vantage point in Cottage Grove, from a bluff along Hwy. 61 known as the Camel Humps.

The two giant humps of bedrock are carpeted with golden prairie grasses that sway in the wind. Below the humps is a cave, the dark opening visible from the highway, not far from 70th Street.

Claudia Glass, a 64-year-old Cottage Grove resident, recently worked in a forest just down the path from those humps, in another part of what's now officially called the Gateway North Open Space Area. She and a few other volunteers chatted as they stacked freshly cut buckthorn, part of a project aimed at restoring the area, long wild and woody within this suburb's city limits.

Glass said she was willing to give her own time to help preserve her community's natural resources. Years ago, when her kids were young, she'd drive them three miles from their house on 90th Street to the Camel Humps, where they would toboggan and take the dirt path to the cave.

Last week, Glass and a few other volunteers gathered in this 67-acre, sun-dappled open space with the Friends of the Mississippi River and its ecologist, Joe Walton, to work on a new restoration.

Partnering with the city

Walton wrote the management plan, and his organization is working with the city to implement it and make the area more accessible to the public.

Crews will keep working this winter to remove buckthorn and honeysuckle. By next summer, the city plans to provide the public with a paved walking path, replacing a narrow dirt path to the overlook, said Zac Dockter, parks and recreation director.

The city acquired the land and patched together 67 acres from Land Trusts and as part of subdivisions, he said. Too few people know they can get to that great view, Dockter said. Now the city is changing that.

The nonprofit group, known as FMR, is dedicating a $66,000 grant to restoration of the bluff area and to provide better public access to this spectacular view.

The City of Cottage Grove is paying another $10,000 in the two-year funding, which continues through the end of 2013.

"We're happy to be partnering with such great organizations in bringing this area up to its full potential," said Mayor Myron Bailey, calling the natural open space "wonderful" for the city.

The land involved in the project is to be kept wild under conditions of a land trust, said John Burbank, a city planner for Cottage Grove who joined Glass and others in stacking buckthorn last week.

Walton said the first phase of the project covers about 30 acres and focuses on invasive species such as buckthorn, tartarian honeysuckle with its orange berries, and the spotted knapweed, which has bright purple flowers and a toxin that kills other plants within a four-foot radius.

It's possible that some of the original prairie foliage will grow back on its own, Walton said.

Fewer fires to curb vegetation

Walton spoke while pausing in buckthorn cleanup at the open space, which includes 53 acres kept wild under a land trust, along with another 14 acres owned by the city. Tree diseases opened the canopy, and light reached undergrowth, enabling it to take over.

In addition, the plants have few natural enemies and there have been fewer wild fires, which would have burned the woody vegetation.

"When humans came and settled this area, we began changing the conditions," he said. "We suppressed fire."

"Today, because of all of that, woody vegetation has really had to chance to establish. The fires don't come through anymore, don't burn off the seedlings," he said.

What was once a prairie and savanna is turning to woodland and eventually forest, he said. The project aims to reinitiate the ecosystem, and take it back to being an oak savannah, he said.

Last week, volunteers donned blue leather gloves, as well as safety glasses, and began heaping buckthorn cuttings into piles. There will be seed collecting, in addition to more brush hauling.

Walton told the volunteers that the natural area was bought and also dedicated to the city by subdivision. Bedrock Bluff Prairie runs from here as a remnant of those prairies that stretched all the way down the Mississippi River past Winona to Iowa.

Last week, the volunteers worked on a top ridge that was an overgrown savannah, near the deadend of Burr Oak Avenue, east of 61.

"There are some remnants still hanging onto the prairie, and we want to try to expand those," Walton said.

He pointed to the bluff, and told of the sumac, Red Cedar, hackberry and other little trees that come in, and noted that the top of the ridge still has beautiful savannah oaks.

Burbank said implementing a new management plan protects the habitat and water quality, and it gives the community a chance to enjoy a large natural resource right at its doorstep.

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038