In his fourth year on the job, Neil Smarjesse is only now beginning to see the payoff from his labors.

Working with two seasonal assistants and hundreds of volunteers, the National Park Service biologist is overseeing the conversion of 29 buckthorn-infested acres just outside Minneapolis into a semblance of what it was nearly 200 years ago.

There is the restored prairie that now waves with grasses and wildflowers. The wetland of plantain, arrowhead and rushes that has been three years in the making. The oaks where the ground has been cleared for the planting by volunteers on Saturday of thousands of pots of grasses and forbs.

All this is happening on a piece of surplus federal land past which thousands of commuters drive unknowingly each day, virtually in the shadow of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The former site of a research complex for the federal Bureau of Mines is sandwiched between Fort Snelling State Park and Minnehaha Park.

The goal is to create a haven where Twin Citians can experience nature and get a glimpse of what the area looked like when the first white settlers arrived in an area inhabited for eons by native residents.

It’s also the only non-island parcel of land that is owned and managed by the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA), a federal designation that follows 72 miles of the Mississippi River through the Twin Cities. The Park Service got the land because the Bureau of Mines is a sister agency within the Interior Department.

“It’s kind of our signature,” Smarjesse said. “That’s why we spend so much time here.”

Perhaps the signature image for what’s called the Coldwater Spring unit is a stiff goldenrod plant in the prairie loaded with 22 monarch butterflies, a photo taken by volunteer Denny Appleman a year ago. It captures the emerging importance of the site for natural habitat.

“During the bird migration, the bird sounds are amazing, the bees, the dragonflies,” said John Anfinson, MNRRA’s superintendent.

Smarjesse has the numbers to back that up. A bio-blitz in July identified 278 plant species, up from 216 two years earlier. The number of fungi varieties has risen from 83 to 92. More than 100 types of dragonflies have been recorded.

“We want to have as much diversity as possible,” Smarjesse said.

A sacred site

The Coldwater area was little known while cutting edge research there kept the public away, but it burst into public consciousness 20 years ago when foes of rerouting nearby Hwy. 55 claimed the spring as a sacred site. Coldwater Spring also has been called the birthplace of Minnesota because soldiers who built Fort Snelling used it as a base for four years.

Changes were made to the highway project to help protect the spring’s flow. Now there’s public access and the spring flows at around 50 gallons per minute. It’s the site centerpiece, although it’s algae-choked at times and no longer potable.

The biggest task in converting the site was attacking the forest of buckthorn that accumulated while its future use was being determined. That was backbreaking work largely carried out by crews of volunteers who turn out twice a week to uproot the rapacious invader. Some 15 acres have been cleared and the work is expanding into nearby land held by other public agencies.

Where remnant oaks stand, the cleared area is painstakingly being planted with complementary shade-tolerant species of grass and flowers. In open areas, prairie is seeded, along with several varieties of oak. Walking paths wind among clumps of violet-flowered New England and ivory-hued heath aster, sunny-petaled brown-eyed Susan and blue false indigo. Midsummer is a peak time for the wildflowers.

But it wasn’t always that way. Establishing a prairie can require four to five years. In 2012, as he was starting, Smarjesse said, there was a bit of panic when the seeded prairie appeared bare and people wondered if the seeding had taken root. Then sweet clover moved in, and had to be cleared for the next two years. The prairie didn’t really take off until last year.

“People were very impressed,” he said. The prairie will need periodic burning, which makes the remnant and planted bur oak valuable because of their fire-resistance. But they’re harder to establish than the swamp white oak that’s also been planted, requiring extra watering and a dose or two of fertilizer. Disease-resistant elm are being reintroduced to the site, while injections are prolonging the lives of selected mature ash that line a pathway against invasive borers.

Part of the job is making sure that invasive species get proper disposal. Some of the buckthorn that volunteers uproot and pile has been chopped to fuel district heating furnaces; Smarjesse hopes to burn more of it at Coldwater once an environmental assessment is done.

A half-dozen wetlands are sprinkled through the complex. The northernmost was created on the footprint of the mining complex’s library. The excavation was planted and seeded, and after three years, including some wiping of invasive cattails with herbicide last spring, now flourishes. It’s filled mostly by rain.

While habitat is being restored, some species of flora and fauna are getting specific attention. Six species of milkweed have been planted in patches to help pollinators. Technician Kadie Gullickson helps along the park’s twin hatches of monarchs, collecting and raising larva on site, then restoring them from the plants where they were collected. That dramatically increases their survival rate, Smarjesse said.

That’s what led to 22 monarchs gathering for their annual migration south in the photo taken by perennial volunteer Appleman.

“It was the most I’ve ever seen,” Smarjesse said.

But most of this happened because of volunteers. Some 715 people have turned out so far this year. Some come for regular shifts on Tuesday evenings or Thursday mornings. Some turn out for massive events like the National Public Lands Day blitz at 8:30 a.m. Saturday in which the goal is to plant 5,000 plants. People interested in participating can learn more at,, or 651-291-9119.

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