Years from now, when people hike around Purrington Prairie in southwest Minnesota, they will experience a rare remnant of high-quality native prairie — not the hilly cattle pasture where generations of Purrington children played.

That's exactly how they want it. The family's 40-acre tract in a steep ravine outside Windom is set to become one of the state's newest Scientific and Natural Areas, protecting a never-plowed prairie ecosystem that's home to a large population of threatened bush prairie clover.

The Purrington's pasture is part of 840 acres of new Scientific and Natural Area land in the pipeline at the state Department of Natural Resources. The family donated the pasture to the state in 2019. It's one of two new sites, in addition to expansions of nine areas around the state.

Gathered at the DNR office in Windom recently, members of the Purrington family reminisced about the farm and said they're eager to see the pasture permanently preserved and open to the public.

"To me it was always a place of solitude," said Brian Purrington, 71, of Oronoco. "You could go out and just be lost and all by yourself. It's kind of a sacred place."

Scientific and Natural Areas, called SNAs, are set up to protect rare plants and animals from development or disturbance. They typically don't have much infrastructure, or even trails, and aren't well known among the public. But they are a key tool in the state's work to save species and biodiversity from what scientists call the sixth mass extinction.

Minnesota has 168 of these refuges covering 192,000 acres — most of it peatlands — but they're a small portion of state lands. By contrast, Minnesota has 4.2 million acres of state forest.

'Crown jewels'

The SNA pipeline has generated criticism from the Friends of Minnesota Scientific & Natural Areas, a nonprofit that has accused the DNR of neglecting the program.

Tom Casey, an environmental lawyer and longtime chair of the nonprofit, said the more he looked into the program, the fewer deals he saw. The DNR is falling far short of what he described as state goals to acquire 1,600 of these refuge acres each year. Since the state adopted the SNA Strategic Land Protection Plan in 2014, it has officially designated just over 3,000 SNA acres, he said. That's about 11,000 acres short of what's expected, he said, and he said he hasn't gotten satisfactory answers from the agency as to why.

"Unless you know why, you can't be helpful in creating the SNA," Casey said. "The SNAs are the crown jewels of our state's land base. They contain the most precious and rarest species."

The citizen advisory group that works with the DNR on such matters, the Natural Heritage Advisory Committee, declined to comment.

Katie Smith,director of the DNR's Ecological and Water Resources division, said that the pandemic slowed down acquisition work and that the legal review and sale process with landowners can be complicated. By state law, the agency can only offer landowners the appraised value of the land and can't make competitive offers.

The 2014 plan sets "aspirational" acre targets but does not divide the goals into annual targets for acquiring the land, Smith said.

"I know the group is very passionate about their work and advocating for what they'd like to see," she said.

DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said the agency remains very committed to the program and has a "healthy tension" with the group. "We're never going to be fast enough," she said.

Casey said the Friends group is meeting with the DNR on Dec. 5 to discuss how to move faster.

A class ring in the pond

When John B. and Orinda Purrington arrived in Minnesota in 1872 and bought the original 80 acres, they probably saw rolling grasslands all around. Now, less than 1% remains of the 18 million acres of prairie Minnesota once had — scattered patches that did not fall to the plow.

John Purrington bought the land from the Sioux City and St. Paul Railroad Company for somewhere between $8 and $12 an acre, according to Rose Purrington, 72, of Windom.

The Purringtons have lived on the farm a few miles outside Windom ever since, raising beef cattle. Brian and Norman Purrington, who grew up on the farm, recalled spending hours exploring the hills. It was overgrazed then, and easy to run through.

They named nearly every feature: Lookout Rock. Wood Duck Falls. Beehive Hill. Juniper Hill. They did not, however, name the stream running through it, a tributary of the Des Moines River they simply called the crick. Norm, 79, of Lake Elmo, said he used to catch bullheads in it. In the 1950s their father created a small pond that they swam in.

"My wife's class ring is in the bottom of that pond," said Norm.

Brian Purrington said a field ecology class he took at Carleton College in the 1970s spurred a deeper appreciation for the native prairie in the family's keep. He started conducting prescribed burns. His brother Doug took over the farm. Doug's wife, Rose, a teacher with a keen interest in plants, connected with now-retired DNR botanist Nancy Sather to track and monitor the rare native prairie bush clover growing on the site.

Fearing their father might sell the pasture for development, his three youngest sons bought it. They managed it for years, clearing invasive plants such as buckthorn and wild parsnip. But the work eventually became too difficult, particularly after Doug, the primary caretaker, fell sick with blood cancer.

In 2016 the brothers sold a permanent conservation easement, putting the land in the state's Native Prairie Bank and receiving a one-time payment of $135,000. The land also qualified for the state's Native Prairie Tax Exemption Program.

Doug died in late 2018. The next year his brothers donated the land to the state for a Scientific and Natural Area, to avoid potential family disagreements about it among future generations.

A rare clover

The land may look like just a lot of grass, but it's a highly diverse prairie ecosystem filled with an array of documented native grasses, sedges, trees, shrubs and wildflowers.

Rose said she once found a rare small white lady's slipper there. DNR SNA specialist Brad Bolduan said he documented a leadplant flower moth, another species of special concern.

But it's the threatened prairie bush clover attracting the most attention. The plant only grows in parts of four states in the Upper Midwest, said DNR botanist Derek Anderson, and there are hundreds of them in patches on the Purrington land, among the largest known populations.

The plants don't look like the short clover in urban yards. These can reach 3 feet high with light pink flowers and narrow leaves spaced far apart. They produce many seedlings, but the plants can struggle to reach adulthood, Anderson said. Adult plants can live decades.

The plants like northwest-facing sloped ravines. It's not clear if it's always been that way, or if they are there because the slopes weren't tilled.

Rose said the family relishes the chance to help stop prairie from disappearing.

"Our society in general is build, build, knock it down, rebuild. ... You have to preserve some of that heritage, so future generations know what it was like," she said.

"I wish Doug had lived to see it."