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Photo courtesy Jim Brandenburg.
Photo courtesy Jim Brandenburg.

Enjoy the prairie, but leave only footprints

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Worthington, 56187

Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

LUVERNE -- Home to the western fringed prairie orchid, Wol's spike rush, tumble grass, pygmy plants and even water starworts, the Touch the Sky Prairie in Rock County is filled with beauty sought out by naturalists, biologists and anyone with an appreciation for native prairie forbs and grasses.

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The restored prairie was established a couple miles west of Blue Mound State Park in 1999 by famed photographer and Luverne's native son, Jim Brandenburg. At the time, 384 acres of prairie pasture was acquired with the hope of saving the soil and bringing back native plant species once found there.

Today, Touch the Sky Prairie has grown to 1,000 contiguous acres, managed by the Brandenburg Prairie Foundation in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"They provide the manpower, and we provide matching grants to keep it sustained," said David Smith, a foundation board member.

The latest acquisition to the prairie is a 5.9-acre homestead abandoned a few years ago after fire burned through the house. The owners left without cleaning it up, and there was talk that a farmer was interested in buying the place for a new hog confinement operation.

"We were really concerned about that," said Smith. "We bought it to save it."

The site will be leveled starting in April, with the buildings either burned or buried, except for a portion of a metal building, which will be saved to use for storage.

"There is some hazardous waste out there, so we'll take care of that," Smith explained. "The trees will come down, too, so it will look like a prairie."

Plans for the site are to create an entrance to the Touch the Sky Prairie, complete with a larger parking area and educational panels to explain the purpose of the restored prairie and what visitors can find there.

"We've been doing some projects with the Prairie Ecology Bus at Lakefield," said Smith. "They bring students over, and they can learn a little bit about the prairie. They harvest seed by hand and do some projects."

The larger parking area will allow for buses to come in, unload, turn around and park, he added.

"That's the plan, now we need the money," said Smith, secretary and grant writer for the foundation.

The group has already applied for some grants and plans to conduct a fundraiser in 2014, with Brandenburg returning to Luverne to present a program.

"It will be a fundraiser for the prairie to help us with this project," Smith said, adding that an all-school reunion is planned in 2014, which will coincide with the Brandenburg visit.

The foundation has committed $15,000 per year to the USFWS to manage the Touch the Sky Prairie. Those funds, raised primarily through individual donations, can then be leveraged by the federal agency to access additional grant dollars for larger projects and land purchases. Foundation funds cover annual expenses for weed control, seeding and controlled burns.

Off the beaten path

In its early days, the Touch the Sky Prairie was a well-hidden asset in Rock County, off the beaten path, not far from intersecting gravel roads. Today, the prairie has signage on U.S. 75, directing people down rolling gravel roads to where the grasses wave in the winds and the flowers bloom from early spring through the fall.

With the prairie's growth to 1,000 acres, Smith said three parking areas were established and accessibility improved.

"One of the things that we've done to make it more handicapped accessible is we've rough mowed the tall grass to create some trails," Smith explained. "One (trail) goes down to a little pond and waterfall on the west side of the property."

The trails have been created in just the last couple of years, and informational kiosks were added to each of the three parking areas, thanks to some matching funds with USFWS.

The hidden gems

In 1999, a survey conducted at Touch the Sky Prairie revealed 237 different species of grasses and forbs. Now, with controlled burns and prairie restoration, Smith said there are more than 1,200 species.

"We have some really quite rare -- I can't even go out and find them because they're so miniscule," he said.

Howard Paul, USFWS park ranger at the Windom office, said the prairie has gone from 21 native plants to 38.

"It is increasing out there, and fire is a key player to this whole project," Paul said.

Two years ago, the USFWS began combining the prairie, collecting the seeds from the various prairie flowers and grasses to use in reseeding other areas of the prairie either in the process of being restored or with some bare spots.

In the fall of 2011, those seeds were spread out over 135 acres of a 180-acre parcel that had once been used for pasture and row-crop production.

"We only harvest a portion of the prairie," said Todd Hauge, assistant manager of the USFWS office in Windom. "We try to focus on some of the areas that we've burned. We may go for certain areas that have more grasses and some areas that have more forbs."

Hauge said the USFWS wants to be good neighbors, and staff members spend quite a bit of time at the site during the summer months to do weed management. Paul also spends time on site cataloging a species list.

Some of the prairie plants can't be found anywhere else outside of Touch the Sky Prairie, which makes the land so important to naturalists.

"That's where you can go and see species that you don't normally see," said Hauge.

"Less than 1 percent of the northern tall grass prairie remains in Minnesota, and in Iowa it's less than 1 one-hundredth of a percent," added Paul.

With 1,000 contiguous acres rescued for permanent prairie in the far southwest corner of the state, the USFWS and the Brandenburg Prairie Foundation are working together to maintain the land. Adding to it isn't out of the question.

"There's more native prairie to the north and the south of what we currently own," Hauge said. "We are working with the neighbors out there to try to protect it, by either a fee purchase or an easement on the property where they can still graze or use the land, but they agree not to plow it up."

As they continue to work together to save the prairie, they're also working together to make sure the public has an opportunity to experience it.

"We're always looking to introduce the public to prairies and the prairie life," said Paul. "We're always looking to do programs out there. That's what it's all about -- it's a reconnection with nature."

Coming up in May, the USFWS will host a group from Crailsheim, Germany, at Touch the Sky Prairie. The group is traveling to Worthington to visit its sister city residents.

"Germany kind of brought over the brome grass, a cool-season grass that we're trying to get rid of now," Paul said. "I think it's going to be a learning experience for them -- and for me as well."

Touch the Sky Prairie is a National Wildlife Refuge, so it is always open to the public, and there is no fee to visit.

"We encourage the public to go out there and learn something new, but leave only footprints, because (the prairie plants) are gems and jewels," Paul added.

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