Transformation underway at Sunfish Lake Park

If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear the sound? When the tree is a 40-year old buckthorn, mowed down by heavy equipment while a team of volunteers gathers round to cheer, then yes. It makes a sound like maniacal glee, mixed together with dirt, sweat, and a cheerful sense of renewal and growth.   

Volunteers George and Todd work to clear trails and remove buckthorn at Sunfish Lake Park.

A transformation is underway at Sunfish Lake Park in Lake Elmo. Amidst 284-acres of oak and maple forest, there are rolling hills, pocket wetlands, spring ephemeral wildflowers, and rare species of turtles, birds, and pollinator insects. There is also a team of dedicated volunteers, working hard to remove buckthorn and other invasive species so that the forest may continue to thrive.

Volunteers originally came together to help build the Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center in 2016. Since then, the Friends of Sunfish Lake Park have developed interpretive exhibits, led nature programming, and worked to restore prairie and woodlands at the park.

Volunteers came together in 2016 to build a nature center at the park. Tony Manzara championed the project and named the center after his late wife.

Last summer, the Friends group 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 Sunfish Lake 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.

Sunfish Lake Park visitors will immediately notice the changes on site, where contractors and volunteers have been clearing buckthorn since late winter. Subcontractor Stantec began with “forest mulching” in the southwest portion of the park, using a track-mounted device to grind up whole buckthorn trees. “If you take a walk in this part of the park, you will notice that the air is permeated with the unforgettable and invigorating aroma of freshly ground buckthorn,” says Tony Manzara, acting director at the nature center. The buckthorn mulch will be used for trails and planting projects.

The next step is to seed 15 acres of newly buckthorn-free woods with native woodland grasses that will help to provide fuel for a prescribed burn next year. Volunteers will also apply herbicide in select locations to control broad-leaf weeds like burdock. Later in the fall, the buckthorn stumps will also be sprayed to prevent them from re-growing.

Do you have buckthorn on your property?

Buckthorn is a non-native, invasive shrub that can grow to the size of a small tree. It spreads quickly through Minnesota woodlands, choking out native flowers and shrubs that provide food and habitat for birds and wildlife. It also prevents saplings from taking root and growing, making it a long term threat for oaks, maples and other hardwood trees.

Buckthorn is a non-native, invasive shrub that has taken over many woodlands in central and southern Minnesota.

Washington Conservation District and Minnesota DNR offer advice for managing buckthorn, including how to identify the shrub and how to kill and prevent it from re-growing. Unlike many trees, buckthorn will grow back from a stump so it is important to either:

  1. Pull out roots when removing
  2. Treat stumps with herbicide; or
  3. Cover stumps with bags or black plastic.

Learn more about buckthorn at

If you are interested in volunteering to help the restoration effort at Sunfish Lake Park, contact George Johnson at 651-757-5610, or