When Washington Conservation District staff and board members visited Mike and Trudy Berggren’s home in Afton during a conservation tour this fall, it was hard to get the group to leave. “I never seem to come out here for half an hour,” said Resource Specialist Rusty Schmidt. “It’s always an hour and a half.” The Berggren’s home sits on 30-acres of woods and wetlands at the headwaters of Valley Creek. Clear, cool groundwater can be seen bubbling up from springs under both the stream and a nearby pond. The even temperatures of the groundwater springs keep the pond from freezing during the winter and also provide the perfect environment for the area’s only reproducing population of brook trout, which are found lurking in shady bends along the length of Valley Creek.
Mike and Trudy have been steadily working to improve their land over the past few years and were recently named as Washington Conservation District’s 2011 Outstanding Conservationists in recognition of their efforts. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources worked with the couple to restore the natural contours of the stream channel along their property using root wads that keep the stream’s banks from eroding and a buffer of deep-rooted native plants within the floodplain. Valley Branch Watershed District provided funding a few years later to further improve the stream buffer. Next, the Berggren’s began attacking invasive buckthorn in their woods with help from a US Fish and Wildlife Service grant. The slope behind their home that was once an impenetrable fortress of buckthorn is now a healthy mix of oaks and other deciduous trees with an understory of native woodland shrubs and groundcover plants. This woodland makeover has improved habitat for birds and wildlife and also reduces erosion on the steep hillsides around the creek. Most recently, Mike and Trudy have worked with the Washington Conservation District and Valley Branch Watershed District to stabilize the shoreline around their ponds and modify their landscaping so that water running off of their home and driveway soaks into the ground before reaching Valley Creek.
Walking around on the Berggren’s property, the benefits of their conservation efforts quickly become apparent. Wildflowers in bloom blanket the shores of the pond, replacing what was once nothing but reed canary grass and eroding dirt. The water in Valley Creek runs clear and clean, and one can easily catch a glimpse of the trout living healthily in the stream. These are only some of the charms now found in these woods, however. Each winter, 30 to 50 trumpeter swans flock to the pond and stream because of the open water. The birds feast on algae floating on the surface of the pond, and leave the water clear by March. The Berggren’s have also spotted otters along the stream, undoubtedly in search of Valley Creek’s fabled trout. “I love it,” says Trudy, of living in the Afton area, “We really lucked out.”
In striving to improve their little corner of the woods, Mike and Trudy Berggren have demonstrated that conservation is a gift that one can both give and receive. Through their efforts, the Berggren’s have helped to improve water quality in their stretch of Valley Creek, as well as for their downstream neighbors. In fact, projects like theirs are even helping to restore the St. Croix River, to which Valley Creek eventually flows. By improving wildlife habitat on their land, the Berggren’s can enjoy the selfish pleasure of glimpsing an otter in the morning, as well as the knowledge that they are contributing to a larger community effort to connect fragmented habitat and bring less common species of birds and wildlife back to the area. These Outstanding Conservationists are enjoying the fruits of their labor, and happily, so are we.