Tucked in amid a commercial development in fast-growing Blaine lies a vibrant piece of the state's natural history — 63 acres of prairie and wetland that will be forever preserved for public viewing.
The Blaine Preserve Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), dedicated Thursday evening by Minnesota and local officials, is "a real jewel," said Rich Baker of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Located within earshot of I-35W, the SNA boasts nearly 300 native plant species, several of them endangered, as well as diverse wildlife. "It is rare, especially in the metro area, to have a spot with such an abundance of rare species," Baker said.
The Blaine site is the state's 159th SNA — areas set aside to preserve their distinctive features, including some of the rarest and best examples of plant communities that were here before European settlers arrived. They have foot paths, but no developed trails, buildings or restrooms. They are open to the public for hiking, wildlife watching and nature study.
The land that is now the Blaine SNA was slated for development in 1999 when the city, using a DNR grant, hired ecologist Jason Husveth to create a citywide plant inventory.
Husveth discovered a rare grassy fen, a marshy area fed by mineral-rich groundwater, in the future preserve and eventually cataloged nearly 300 native plant species — representing about 15 percent of the state's total. Among them were 13 rare plants, more than at any of the other 16 SNAs in the metro area, DNR officials said.
Developing and donating
About 10 years ago, developer Brad Moen bought roughly 180 acres that include the SNA. He hired Husveth, who worked out a deal with the DNR to comply with laws protecting wetlands.
Moen donated the site and received state credits for spending about $500,000 to have Husveth and others restore the fen and an adjacent wet prairie. Husveth began coordinating removal of acres of invasive plants five years ago and has had two controlled burns to clear grass thatch and invasives so more native plants can sprout.
In return for his land donation and restoration, Moen was allowed to develop degraded wetlands on the property that now holds a church, Rasmussen College and a commercial building, city officials said.
"I'm not going to get rich on wetland credits," said Moen, who has since sold the land. But "it is rewarding to know there is something that is unique and it's right in the community. Now it is protected."
Path to the SNA
Earlier this week, Husveth, 41, was walking through the soggy carpet of natural grasses, wildflowers, rushes and cattails when he stopped to point out some twisted yellow-eyed grass. He recalled his first encounter with the plant elsewhere in Blaine.
"In December 1997, I was walking my dogs in Pioneer Park and I came across the winter remains of this plant. It hadn't been seen in 30 years in Minnesota," he said. "That was the beginning of this whole series of discoveries."
Yellow-eyed grass, which blooms about two weeks in the summer, was among hundreds of plants in the park. "We found other rare things and put the pieces together: If they were here, they could be in other parts of the city," Husveth said. "That led to doing the natural resources inventory."
Husveth found the yellow-eyed grass in the preserve in 1999.
His most exciting find at the site was another plant, the marginated rush. "I had been looking for it. It had not been seen since 1920 in Fridley. Nobody knew it was in Minnesota anymore. We found it 80 years later."
Displaying a color-coded map of the preserve, Husveth said that "you can't walk in a straight line across this site without encountering a state endangered or threatened species."
He said the wetland is so rich in species because it has a fertile transition zone between the fen and the wet prairie ecosystems. The site also offers black-eyed Susans, purple blazing stars, deer, muskrats, monarch butterflies and coyotes.
"Since the glacier came down and receded, this wetland has been about 10,000 years in the making," Husveth said.
SNAs have been a little-known natural amenity compared with state parks, trails and forests. About 18 months ago, the DNR used state Natural Resources Trust fund to attract more visitors by publicizing the wild and scenic areas and holding events such as naturalist-led hikes and talks. The DNR also is recruiting site stewards – volunteers who help manage and make monthly checks on the sites. Kelly Randall, assigned to oversee outreach efforts, said the number of stewards has increased from about 10 a year ago to 100.
The state has acquired 188,000 acres for SNAs since the program started in 1969. Randall said the DNR has used Natural Resources Trust funds from State Lottery proceeds to buy 6,522 SNA acres for about $22.1 million since 2000.
The Blaine SNA is one of the few with a parking area, borrowed from the adjoining Lexington Memorial Park on Hamline Avenue. Preserve entry points are not marked, so visitors should consult the DNR's website, which has maps and directions at www.dnr.state.mn.us/snas.
You'll know you're on the right path if you see the brown DNR sign asking you not to pick the flowers and suggesting you "walk gently."