Tread lightly or the plants might eat you

They tried to drain the swamp, but the swamp fought back and won. For years, northern Minnesota residents struggled in vain to drain a vast peat bog stretching 500 square miles across the land. Between 1910 and 1916, they spent millions of dollars and dug more than 1500 miles of ditches to redirect water from the sprawling wetland into nearby lakes and streams. Eventually, they gave up and the wetland was allowed to remain wet.

Stroll along the boardwalk at Big Bog State Recreation Area through a forest of tiny trees, dwarfed by the acidic soils.

Today, Big Bog State Recreation Area offers visitors an opportunity to venture into this otherwise inhospitable territory via a mile-long floating boardwalk. The bog is the largest in the lower 48 states and is home to many threatened and endangered plants, including yellow-eyed grass, bog rush and two kinds of sundews. From the boardwalk, you can walk through a forest of miniature trees, sink your hand into a plush, shag carpet of sphagnum moss, and get a close-up view of carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews. The park is located just north of Red Lake, 40 miles south of the Canadian border.

Sundews at Big Bog
Look closely in the sphagnum moss and you can find sundews with water drops glistening on their hairs. These and pitcher plants are two carnivorous plants found in Minnesota bogs.

Closer to home, Twin Cities residents can explore an equally unique ecosystem at the Blaine Wetland Sanctuary, located just north of Hwy 35W on Lexington Ave.  The 500 acre preserve was established through the state’s wetland banking program, which allows developers to pay to restore wetlands in the nearby area to compensate for wetlands that are filled or drained during construction of homes and businesses. By restoring wetlands within the city-owned open space, Blaine created 55 trading credits, which translated into $5 million in funding to build a floating boardwalk and trails, install interpretive signs, and offer public programming. An additional 200 acres will also be restored as non-bank wetlands.

During a recent tour for local water professionals, ecologist Jason Husveth led people off the boardwalk and into the soggy wild at the Blaine Wetland Sanctuary. There, he pointed out rare plant species including twisted yellow-eyed grass, lanceleaf violet, ragged fringed orchids, and Vermont blackberry. “The reality is that within this type of wetland, these plants are actually quite common,” Husveth explained. “But, they’ve become rare because the habitat itself has disappeared.” Through his company, Critical Connections Ecological Services, Husveth has been working with the City of Blaine to restore the sanctuary by removing trees and invasive species and redirecting water from an abandoned ditch system back into the wetlands.

Jason Husveth leads water professionals on a tour at Blaine Wetlands Sanctuary
Jason Husveth (left) leads water professionals on a tour at Blaine Wetlands Sanctuary.

Like in Big Bog State Recreation Area, the wetlands in Blaine are perched atop layers of peat, in some places as deep as 25ft, that accumulated over the past 6000 years. By 1938, most of the area had been ditched for farming, and the wetland was relatively dry during several years of drought. Over time, ash, box elder, cotton wood, maple began to grow there and invasive species such as reed canary grass crept in. Amazingly, however, Husveth and the city have been able to restore native plants within the wetland simply by removing the top layer of plant material and allowing sun to reach the peat below. Though the native seeds in the soil are 50-70 years old, they’ve germinated and flourished in the past five years.

This Rubus vermontanus (Vermont blackberry) is one of the rare plant species found in the Blaine Wetland Sanctuary. 

Although people drained or filled half of Minnesota’s wetlands during the past 150 years, widespread losses have now stopped and the state has actually gained about 9000 acres of wetlands in recent years. Today, 75% of our wetlands are found in northern and northeastern Minnesota and the wetlands there are still in good health overall. In central Minnesota and the Twin Cities area, however, 82% of wetlands have been altered or taken over by invasive species. Meanwhile, in southern and western Minnesota, only 5% of the wetlands remain. Modern state and federal laws aim to achieve “non-net loss” of wetlands, but many constructed wetlands are shallow ponds that bear little resemblance to the natural wetlands they replace. According to Husveth, the Blaine Wetland Sanctuary is one of the few high-quality wetlands of its type remaining in the metro area.

In Washington County, unique wetlands to visit include Tamarack Nature Preserve in Woodbury, Lake McKusick in Stillwater, William O’Brien State Park, and the soon-to-be-closing Warner Nature Center (which features a quaking bog with carnivorous plants). You can also find wetlands along the trails at Oakdale Discovery Center, Lake Elmo Park Reserve, and Sunfish Lake Park in Lake Elmo.