Green volunteers

From left, Ann Hill, Michelle Pieper and Kristina Smitten.

Rebuilding the remnant prairie

Jackson Meadow is more than a housing development at the top of the hill in Marine on St. Croix. 

It’s 250 acres of glorious flowering prairie and pine forest. It’s six miles of walking, cycling and skiing trails, maintained year-round for the benefit of the entire city. And it’s a community of residents with a deep commitment to a unique piece of history and habitat – a piece of remnant Minnesota prairie, never broken by the plow. 

In order to protect this unique asset, the homeowners’ association of Jackson Meadow hired Critical Connections Ecological Services, in Scandia, to create an ecological management plan for the meadow and open spaces. They wanted to understand how they could maintain the quality of the landscape and support its ecological functions. 

The community then asked the City of Marine for support in applying to the DNR for a grant to conduct a prairie restoration project. When the grant was received, they hired Landbridge Ecological, a company with both equipment and restoration expertise.

“Not just in Jackson Meadow, but in Marine as a whole, there is a great interest among community members to understand how to care for our native landscape,” said resident Kristina Smitten, grant writer for the project. 

“This restoration project is an opportunity for us to learn about different ways to do the work, by 

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volunteering and being guided by the experts. That makes it much more rewarding.”

Since the start of the project, two dozen volunteers have put in more than 500 hours of time removing buckthorn and other invasive plants, helping with prairie burns, and planting in the 32 acres being restored.

Smitten said the work will continue for several more years. “We do plan to have opportunities to walk with ecologists, to learn what the work is about, to learn to identify plant species. Folks can keep an eye out for that next summer.” 

 

Warm in the cold of winter

In the fall and during the cold days of a COVID winter, the restoration crew trimmed trees, pulled buckthorn and brush. On winter evenings, that plant material was burned. It became a special time for the community.

 “There were folks out there finding beauty in the cold,” said Smitten. “The stillness that winter brings, being in nature, the sounds, and physical activity. It draws people outside.”

One of those fire watchers was Michelle Pieper, a resident of Jackson Meadow for 4 years. 

“It was fun because it was winter. There are not a lot of things to do outside. We watched the fires after the work crews left for the day and added fuel to keep it going. It helped with the budget (to have volunteers do this work).”

Another fire tender was Michelle’s neighbor Ann Hill, a new resident to Marine. “I moved here in March 2020, the week of the COVID shutdown. I moved here because of the strength of the community, the sense of neighbors, the incredible support people have, and their respect for the history of the place and the environment.”

“Volunteer labor was built into the workplan of this project,” she said. “I think it had an exponential impact because of COVID. Many more got involved and it increased everyone’s enthusiasm.

“We realized how much we missed community. How much we missed our neighbors. Everyone came to love working on this project. It was like having a big bonfire every night.

“There are just so many opportunities to enhance the community by volunteering here in Marine, but also to enhance you as an individual. (Volunteering) helps you to grow.”

Michelle agrees: “What I’ve seen here is that there is so much community involvement, with projects of all different kinds. Everybody brings something to the table, different strengths, different areas of expertise. We all have something to contribute. 

“In my case I’m not a committee person but I don’t mind getting dirty and working hard. That’s what I bring -- the grunt labor. Not everyone is able to do the physical stuff, or they don’t care to do that, but they find other ways to contribute. 

“This place just feels like home and everybody is willing to get out there to do something. There is a place for everybody.”

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