Scientific and Natural Areas protect Minnesota’s natural heritage

A grasshopper perches on a tattered black-eyed susan. Two red and black striped beetles dance a tango atop a lilac spray of vervain. Gentle summer breezes carry the sound of laughter as an impish four-year old boy balances carefully on a time-weathered rock. Around him, the swaying grasses, muted prairie colors, and tumbled down, lichen-covered boulders are exactly the same as they’ve been for more than a century. Not much changes at the St. Croix Savanna Scientific and Natural Area; in fact, that’s kind of the point.

This year, Minnesota’s Scientific and Natural Areas program celebrates its 50th year of existence. The program was created in 1969 to protect “exceptional places where native plants and animals flourish; where rare species are protected; and where we can know, and study, Minnesota’s fascinating natural features.” To date, there are 168 Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs) in the state protecting over 192,000 acres of land. The program protects an additional 12,800 of private lands through Native Prairie Bank easements.

In Washington County, there are five Scientific and Natural Areas. Falls Creek and Crystal Spring SNA are located in the northeast corner of the county along the St. Croix River. St. Croix Savanna SNA is located along Hwy 95 just south of Bayport, Grey Cloud Dunes SNA overlooks the Mississippi River in Cottage Grove, and the Lost Valley Prairie SNA contains 320 hidden acres of prairie in Denmark Township.

Hiking in the prairie at Grey Cloud Dunes SNA

Crystal Spring was designated as a SNA in 2016 and is one of the newest in the system. Former owner Gregory Page recalls thinking, “No one person should own this land.” So, after forty years of private ownership, Page worked with the Minnesota DNR to permanently protect the pine forest, rock walls, and ephemeral waterfall on his property for public use and benefit (MN DNR 2016).

Crystal Springs 007
A deep gorge and stream runs through Crystal Spring SNA

The primary goal of the Scientific and Natural Areas program is to protect Minnesota’s natural heritage and ensure that examples of intact, pristine habitat are not lost from any ecological region of the state. SNAs also provide opportunities for nature-based recreation, education, and scientific research opportunities. The program is primarily funded through the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund (state lottery proceeds) and the Outdoor Heritage Fund (state sales tax). Private landowners and the Nature Conservancy also donate land to the program.

Unlike State Parks, SNAs do not allow camping, organized social events, or alterations to the landscape, such as buildings and roads. In fact, many do not even have designated trails. They are ideal destinations for low-impact activities like bird watching, hiking, nature photography, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing (though not on groomed trails). Some SNAs allow dogs, but most do not. Only some allow more intense usage such as snowmobiling, hunting, fishing, and berry picking.

St. Croix Valley SNA 4
Many Scientific and Natural Areas do not have designated trails. This helps to distribute the impact of visitors and reduce changes to the landscape in these areas.

In addition to managing public lands and easements, the Scientific and Natural Areas program offers private landowners a tax incentive to preserve parcels of native prairie five acres or larger that have never been plowed, cultivated, reseeded, or altered by heavy grazing or herbicides.

Scientific and Natural Areas are hidden gems, and they offer unique opportunities to find solitude in nature. In these quiet places, the landscape remains constant year, after year, after year. Rocks weather, trees grow, and prairie grass sways in the wind. Within the boundaries of these special protected places, nature is permitted to just be.

Grey Cloud Dunes SNA

To learn more about Minnesota’s Scientific and Natural Areas, including locations and rules, go to:

Interested in volunteering? There are monthly stewardship events at the Lost Valley Prairie SNA in Denmark Twp. The next one is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 25, 10am-2pm. Volunteers will be burning brush piles. Contact Jim Smetana for info: