LUVERNE — A blooming prickly pear cactus displays its bright yellow petals as acres of prairie grasses gently wave in the breeze. In the distance, one can hear the chorus of birds welcoming a new day on the prairie, while nearby, a nesting pheasant hen gets spooked and takes flight.
For nature lovers and outdoors explorers who visit Touch The Sky Prairie in the far southwest corner of Minnesota, it’s a veritable attack on the senses. Here, on a roughly 1,200-acre tract north of Luverne and west of Blue Mounds State Park, people can see, hear, smell and feel a connection with not only nature, but history.
The Touch The Sky Prairie has grown to nearly three times its original size since it was first established 20 years ago. The property was the vision of internationally-known wildlife photographer and Luverne native Jim Brandenburg, and was the first acquisition in what is now 12,249 acres of the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge scattered throughout western Minnesota and northwest Iowa. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) manages the lands, which are open to the public for walking, hiking, nature photography, birding and general exploration.
A legacy project
Brandenburg, who now resides near Ely in northeast Minnesota, was born and raised in rural Rock County, about a mile from Touch The Sky. An award-winning photographer for the Daily Globe in Worthington early in his career, he went on to capture images for National Geographic, being sent around the world to share — through his photos — the stories of wildlife and the environment. He has also authored numerous books showcasing his stunning nature photography.
As Brandenburg’s career blossomed, the Luverne Area Chamber of Commerce saw an opportunity to further promote their native son’s photography and encouraged him to open a gallery in their community.
“I said I’d do it if we made prairie preservation and prairie education (the goal),” recalled Brandenburg in late June.
It was inside that gallery more than two decades ago that a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee — tasked with buying prairie lands for the creation of a Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge — learned of Brandenburg and his interest in the prairie. His task coincided with Brandenburg’s desire to purchase and preserve some Rock County land.
When the two first met, it was on a nearly 400-acre parcel west of Blue Mounds State Park. Brandenburg was already in talks with the land’s owner — a classmate of his — about a possible purchase.
“I took him out there; here’s a federal government guy and we stood on one of those rocks out there,” Brandenburg recalled. “He had a tear running down his cheek and he said, ‘This is it.’”
The Brandenburg Foundation, established by Jim and Judy Brandenburg, has partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Luverne Area Chamber of Commerce to protect and expand Touch The Sky. Thanks to grants and some substantial donations, the prairie has slowly expanded to its current size.
“It’s grown piece by piece,” Brandenburg said, adding that the foundation is now working to purchase several small parcels adjacent to the prairie. One such purchase was completed in June. If all are completed, Touch The Sky will grow by another 150 acres, including the land he grew up on.
That, he said, will complete the circle.
“The thing I’m most moved by, and the sacred, most precious and valued thing in my life is Touch The Sky Prairie,” Brandenburg shared. “My experience there is unique to anybody because I was born there. I touched the right people and they touched the right people and we touched the prairie.
“Touch The Sky … isn’t just land, it’s heritage,” he added. “What do we leave behind? I don’t need to leave another photograph behind, another movie. The story and context is how you change people, (encourage them) to cherish the land.”
Transformed by nature
Todd Luke, USFWS District Manager based in Windom, oversees management of the Touch The Sky Prairie, where periodic burning and short duration, high intensity cattle grazing are used to replicate nature and encourage growth of native prairie plants and flowers. The entire goal is to develop the land as it would have looked prior to settlement.
As the very first tract acquired as part of the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, Luke said seeds harvested from Touch The Sky are now used to establish other native prairies.
“We’re always open to working with landowners, whether it’s to purchase land or to work with them on conservation easements that allow haying and grazing,” he said of USFWS’ goal in building the Northern Tallgrass Prairie. “It’s really about preserving history. That’s one thing we try to promote (at Touch The Sky). People can escape into history — you see the sky touching the ground, and that’s how it got its name.”
Touch The Sky is home to a diverse array of plants and wildlife that is hard to find anywhere else, Luke said. While it isn’t as varied as native prairie would be — at one time a native patch could have been home to 800 species of plants — Luke said there continue to be new plants discovered every year.
More than a decade ago, USFWS staff and Brandenburg discovered the federally endangered Western Fringed Prairie Orchid growing on what was their very first land purchase for Touch The Sky.
“It’s one of the rarest orchids in North America — probably one of the most beautiful,” Brandenburg shared.
“I could not believe it,” he added of the discovery. “It was on the Loosbrock tract. It was overgrazed; it looked like a golf course when we bought it. That little plant persevered for 100 years.”
Luke is certain other species will persevere as well on the complex, and not only is USFWS monitoring the presence of plant species, it’s also tracking animals.
“Recently, we possibly discovered a new species of prickly pear cactus that hadn’t previously been found in Minnesota,” Luke said, noting it is also a federally endangered species. “We’re also looking for prairie chickens out there every year. We’ve documented some in Pipestone County, and we have high hopes that they’ll find a home at Touch The Sky Prairie soon.”
Meanwhile, there have also been archeological finds at Touch The Sky, from bison rubs on rock to petroforms, which are larger formations of Sioux Quartzite used for spiritual or other functions by Native Americans.
According to Brandenburg, more than 30 archeological finds have been documented at Touch The Sky, including an interesting circle of rocks one Native American called a Vision Quest site.
“There’s just so many different reasons to go out there,” Luke said.
“The prairie can move people,” Brandenburg added. “The experience of walking across the prairie, once you get hooked on it, I almost see a deeper intensity than people who are hooked on the north woods. There’s something about prairie passion that somehow runs a little deeper.”
Roughly one-half of 1% of prairie remains in the U.S.
If you go
The Touch The Sky Prairie is located three miles west of U.S. 75 on Rock County 20, then one mile north to 171st Street. There is a gravel parking lot, with three mowed hiking and walking trails. One route takes the upper path, one the lower and one leads to Beaver Creek Falls.
A kiosk near the parking lot entrance displays a map of the area, with brochures available that identify the vast variety of wildflowers in bloom each month. Soon, there will also be birding and geology brochures available as well.
The grounds are open to pheasant hunting from October through December.
The Luverne Area Chamber hosted events two or three times per year at Touch The Sky prior to COVID, and will begin offering events there again in 2022.