Friends of Sunfish Lake Park lands $139,000 grant to manage buckthorn

It would be easier to hike the trails at Sunfish Lake Park if it weren’t for the woodland wildflowers that interrupt you at every turn. Pause a moment, they say, and notice that it is spring. If it weren’t for the beaver that plopped into the water and is now carving a shimmering arc across a wooded pond, you could make it deeper into the park with less time spent dawdling by the water’s edge. And when you finally crest the hill at the top of a glacial valley, you could quickly complete the rest of your journey if it weren’t for the winding trail that branches and continues on in both directions, leaving you to wonder which is the path less traveled and what would happen if you took it.

Take a 4-min tour of woodland wildflowers at Sunfish Lake Park

Sunfish Lake Park is a 284-acre park in Lake Elmo that features oak and maple forest in a rolling landscape with steep hills and numerous pocket wetlands. The park is recognized by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as a regionally significant ecological area and is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including red-shouldered hawks, bald eagles, the threatened Blanding’s turtle, and at least six species of frogs. The park is also a likely location for the endangered Rusty-patched bumblebee, which was recently named as the Minnesota state bee.

Rusty-patched bumblebee on monarda (bee balm). Photo by Friends of the Mississippi River.

During the spring, violets, Jack-in-the-pulpit, wild geranium, large-flowered bellwort, and strawberry dot the forest floor. Prior to the mid-1800s the landscape was shaped by periodic fire, which maintained more open conditions than what is currently found on site. Unfortunately, invasive buckthorn has crept into the park in recent years and threatens to crowd out native woodland wildflowers and shrubs, eradicating wildlife habitat in the process.

Buckthorn is a non-native, invasive shrub. In the above photo, it can be seen growing between aspen and pine trees where it is crowding out native plants on the forest floor.

This summer, Friends of Sunfish Lake Park secured a $139,000 grant from the Minnesota Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council Conservation Partners Legacy Grant Program to remove buckthorn and restore native plants in 40 acres of the park. The City of Lake Elmo will contribute $10,000 to the project and volunteers will provide at least 300 hours of in-kind support as well.

Friends of Sunfish Lake Park was established in 2016 to develop and operate the new Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center. The friends group conducts nature programming and coordinates volunteer events at the park. Previously, the City of Lake Elmo also restored 17-acres of prairie on the south side of Sunfish Lake Park near the interpretive center.

In the above trail map, the yellow area labeled as “Farm Fields” has since been restored to native prairie.

In a History of Sunfish Lake Park, compiled for the City of Lake Elmo in 2011, Judith Blackford writes, “Sunfish Lake Park is a critical haven for people. Nature affords us that escape to the wilderness-that tonic that Thoreau spoke of-as being essential to man’s well-being. Communing with a wild deer brings one closer to our original place in nature, and it deeply resonates in our being that when we are in nature we are home.”

Friends of Sunfish Lake Park is currently seeking volunteers to help remove buckthorn and mark mature oak and maple trees on site. Buckthorn removal events are scheduled every Saturday at 9:30am, while oak and maple trees can be marked anytime throughout the week. Both are good options for people looking to get fresh air and maintain physical distancing recommendations. For more information about volunteer opportunities at Sunfish Lake Park, contact George Johnson at 651-757-5610, or