Transformation underway at Lake Elmo Park Reserve

Lake Elmo Park Reserve is an outdoor destination that beckons in all seasons. The 2,165 acre park contains more than 14 miles of hiking trails and 8 miles of multi-use hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking trails. Many of these are groomed for cross-country skiing in the winter. There is a swimming pond and beach, a campground, several playgrounds and picnic areas, and a public boat launch with access to namesake Lake Elmo.

Families gather for a summer program in the campground at Lake Elmo Park Reserve

Though the park is located only one mile north of Hwy 94, it offers a true nature experience to visitors. Eighty percent of the land has been set aside for preservation and protection and is actively managed to improve natural habitat pollinators, birds, and wildlife.

Recently Washington County secured new funding through the Outdoor Heritage Fund as appropriated by the Minnesota State Legislature and recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. The county is using these funds to restore and improve 166 acres of prairie and oak savanna at Lake Elmo Park Reserve around Eagle Point Lake and in the north end of the park.

Lake Elmo Park Reserve already has large areas of restored prairie. With new funds from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, the County will restore and improve and additional 166 acres of prairie and oak savanna.

Prairies are a complex and diverse plant community consisting of native grasses, sedges and wildflowers. They can contain as many as 300 species of plants, which support a variety of grassland dependent insects, birds, pollinators and other wildlife. Prairies are unique in that they were created and are maintained through the interconnected relationship between climate, soils, topography, fire and grazing.

However, over the last 150 years, 98% of these areas have been converted to cropland or developed, making parks and public land very important for the wildlife that rely upon them. Currently, Washington County is converting 78 acres of low diversity Kentucky bluegrass and smooth brome dominated grassland and 22 acres of cropland in the north end of the park into prairie.

One species of concern they hope to support is the endangered rusty-patched bumblebee, newly designated as the Minnesota state bee. Flowers such as wild bergamot, blazing star, and asters are a critical nectar source for this species and will be included in the planting mix.

Above: Wild bergamot, also known as bee balm, provides nectar for the endangered rusty-patched bumblebee, as well as other pollinators. The blooms are a light pinkish-purple.

Closer to Eagle Point Lake, the county is removing common buckthorn, honeysuckle, amur maple and box elder to improve 66 acres of oak savanna. Oak savannas exist at the border of two of Minnesota’s major biomes – prairie and deciduous forests. Neither fully forest nor fully grassland, these habitats nurture many of the same flowers and grasses that grow in the prairie but also feature sprawling bur oaks that create a partial forest canopy.

Historically, oak savanna existed in locations where the Dakota people lived, setting intentional fires to improve habitat for game and foraging grounds, which attracted bison which grazed the prairie grasses. In areas where fire and grazing merge, oaks would establish and survive the fires due their thick bark, which makes them able to withstand damage from fires that kill other species of trees. Today, most of Minnesota’s historical oak savanna has been lost due to intensive or suppressed grazing, fire suppression, and introduction of other plant species.

Prairie and oak savanna are fire-dependent habitats. The deep roots of the grasses and forbs remain alive even when fire burns the dried plant material above ground. The fires help to keep invasive plants and woody shrubs from taking over.

Oak savanna is home to a variety of wildlife including deer, turkeys, and the red-headed woodpecker, which is listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Minnesota.  An oak-savanna specialist, the red-headed woodpecker nests in cavities of mature oak trees and caches acorns for food. Habitat loss across the state accounts for a nearly 80 percent decline in red-headed woodpecker populations since 2004, according to a 2014 Audubon Minnesota report.

Because prairie and oak savanna ecosystems are largely dependent on landscape disturbances such as fire and grazing, Washington County has incorporated grazing, haying, and fire into its long-term maintenance plan for Lake Elmo Park Reserve. This summer, a herd of goats from Goat Dispatch, LLC has been grazing sections of the park and will likely remain on site until September 20. Park staff and contractors have also been working to clear trees and shrubs in the savanna restoration areas. Next year, work will continue with site preparation and seeding.

Goats graze on woody invasives at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, including common buckthorn, honeysuckle, amur maple and box elder. Washington County Parks is working with Goat Dispatch, LLC to rotate the goats through different sections of the park throughout the year.

The Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund was established through a constitutional amendment in 2008 and allocates a portion of Minnesota sales tax to restore, protect, and enhance Minnesota’s wetlands, prairies, forests, and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife.

To learn more about Lake Elmo Park Reserve and download trail maps, go to www.co.washington.mn.us/502/Lake-Elmo-Park-Reserve.

An autumn view at Lake Elmo Park Reserve. In addition to prairie and oak savanna, the park also contains numerous wetlands and small stands of maple and aspen woods.