It’s a beautiful fall day and the sun is streaming down through red and golden maple leaves to the forest floor below. My colleagues and I are on a tour of beautiful forests in Washington County, and have just arrived at a county-owned conservation easement in May Township. Tara Kelly holds a worn copy of A Field Guide to the Native Plant Communities in Minnesota in her hands and explains that European settlers compiled detailed records of the native plant communities in the region in the early 1800s, prior to colonization. “It’s sort of like a crayon drawing,” she says. “We know what kinds of plants and trees grew together in different regions of the county and state, but not in precise detail at an acre by acre scale.”
Kelly is a Landscape Restoration Specialist with the Washington Conservation District (WCD), and works closely with Washington County, private landowners, and other community partners to help transition degraded forests and prairies around the county back to a healthier, more natural state. Some of the primary tools for this work include managing nonnative invasive species like buckthorn and oriental bittersweet, enhancing low-quality habitat with a wider diversity of native plants, and bringing back fire and grazing to maintain prairies and oak savannas.
In 2006, Washington County voters authorized a $20 million bond referendum to protect water, woodlands, and other natural areas in the county. This led to the creation of the Washington County Land and Water Legacy Program, through which the county and partners have completed 34 land protection projects on more than 1,100 acres in the last 15 years. Later, in 2011, the Washington Conservation District helped the county to inventory natural resources, habitat and waterways in Washington County in order to identify the “Top 10 Priority Conservation Areas.” Legacy Funds have enabled the county to add on to regional parks, including Big Marine, Lake Elmo, Pine Point, St. Croix Bluffs, and the future Grey Cloud Island Regional Park, as well as purchase and permanently protect high-quality habitat in numerous other priority locations.
This fall, the WCD is launching a new initiative to develop a countywide community forestry program, in partnership with cities, volunteers, and the AmeriCorps Climate Impact Program. Over the next year, Tim Foss, a newly hired AmeriCorps member, will be helping to engage community volunteers around community forestry and climate projects, conducting tree inventories for demonstration projects, and mapping the different organizations doing tree and forestry work in the county so that partners can visualize how all of the pieces fit together.
Some community forestry initiatives, like the Washington County Land and Water Legacy Program, are expansive in nature. But, there are also smaller-scale initiatives led by cities, nonprofits, and volunteers that focus on tree planting and habitat restoration on a site by site basis.
For example, volunteer Water Stewards are currently leading four different community forestry projects in Washington County, with funding from North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix Heritage Area, via a Grinnell College Wall Service Award. Anna Barker and Tom Furey are building gravel bed tree nurseries at the Washington County Fairground and in Scandia to propagate trees for planting projects. In Cottage Grove, Cole Williams has mobilized volunteers to remove buckthorn and restore prairie at Wag Dog Park. In Woodbury, Wally Wadd is working with church members and volunteers to restore oak savanna at The Grove.
Washington Conservation District is also looking to support community forestry initiatives within highly developed regions of the county, such as Landfall, a mobile home park community near Oakdale. With grant funds from the Minnesota Lawns to Legumes program, the WCD is collaborating with the City of Landfall, Washington County, Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District, Family Means and The Green Crew (a youth-lead environmental action program) to create pollinator habitat and explore integrative ideas, such as a food forest with fruit trees and veggie gardens.
On a beautiful fall day, five intrepid conservationists wander through the woods and dream big about re-connecting habitat corridors and planting seeds for the future. A bur oak here, a gravel bed nursery there – bit by bit, the forest is returning to claim its former glory.