Protecting a natural legacy

Eden Prairie / Minnetonka, Minnesota
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THE CHALLENGE AND PROMISE OF A SMALL SUBURBAN WOODS:

The Future of Birch Island Woods Conservation Area
By Jeff Strate, June 10, 2007

“Simplicity in all things is the secret of the wilderness and one of its most valuable lessons.” Sigurd Olson


With less than 1/10 of 1 per cent of Hennepin County’s forests remaining from pre-European settlement days and with increasing population pressures, it is our responsibility to care for the small natural areas that remain.

36 acres of the 41-acre Birch Island Woods complex of trees and wetlands form Eden Prairie’s smallest conservation area. This compact size presents advantages and challenges in keeping it a sustainable, urban-bound natural area. The Birch Island Woods Conservation Area Management Plan (May 21, 2002) is intended to provide guidance for the preservation and management of the sanctuary and to enable safe, public access and appropriate educational and recreational uses.

MAP KEY

1 Picha Heritage Farm
2 Former site of a farm house
3 New subdivsion
4 Holasek House
5 Eden Wood Lodge
6 Glen Lake Children’s Camp
7 Birch Island Woods Trail
8 Midwest Asphalt
9 SW Regional Trail kiosk
X Impaired sites
P Hog barn slab and proposed parking lot
NT Nature trail with interpretative signs

CHALLENGES: Inappropriate uses

In the woods, native habitat and wildlife including fox, deer, chipmunks, pileated woodpeckers, wild turkeys, ground birds and owls have become vulnerable to environmental degradation caused by pet owners who do not leash their dogs, off-trail bike riders, paint ball gunners, beer parties and trash dumping – uses that are prohibited in all of the city’s conservation areas and along its shorelines. Increased monitoring, enforcement of ordinances, clear procedures for citizens to report violations, and community education programs can reduce encroachments and abuses.

The City needs to develop and implement internal division-to-division procedures for dealing with storm-felled trees and limbs that respect the guidelines of the BIWCA’s management plan. Despite repeated citizen requests, trees and large limbs toppled by summer storms in 2005 were not tended to until 2006 – some heavy, fractured limbs that were barely propped over woodchip trails were a safety hazards. One uprooted tree, an enormous dead veteran that had fallen over a wood chip trail, was sawed into large segments and left as unsightly debris when it should have only been partitioned for the path’s right-of-way and left mostly whole as critter habitat.

Again, in late autumn of 2006, city tree trimmers working along Indian Chief Road left large, sawed logs that remained an invitation for illegal dumping until a resident removed some of them shortly after Earth Day in April 2007. Piles of cut and uprooted buckthorn and bags of pulled garlic mustard can also be unsightly if left in unsuitable locations for long amounts of time.

PEDESTRIAN UNDERPASS:

Friendship Ventures, the Parks Division and Friends of Birch Island Woods have informally discussed the need for a bike/hike passageway under the Twin City & Western Rail Road right-of-way to connect the conservation area to Eden Wood. An underpass (mentioned in the BIW Management Plan) would benefit Eden Wood’s special needs camping programs, conservation area visitors by providing safe and direct access between the two areas. Indian Chief Road can be dangerous for large groups of hikers. In anticipation of the use of the railroad alignment for two-track commuter rail and increasing traffic on Indian Chief Road, a pedestrian underpass seems to be a necessity and should be built.

THE LARGE HILL: The case for a use easement of acquisition

The large hill owned by Twin Cities and Western Railroad needs to be managed as part of the conservation area. The comparatively flat and densely wooded crest with its panoramic overlooks has been a hiking destination of the special needs campers from Eden Wood and generations of picnickers and beer drinkers. Erosion prompted by bikes and walkers on steep slopes and discarded lawn furniture and debris at illegal fire rings on its crest is recurring problems. The previous parks director recognized that a use easement for the approximately 5-acre parcel should be secured by the city so that the hill can be managed as if it were part of the conservation area. City ownership of the hill would be a better if more expensive option and should also be considered.

ADVANTAGES OF A COMPACT SIZE: Community stewardship

Although the small size of the woods presents challenges, it also presents opportunity. The conservation area’s compactness and its proximity to Eden Wood have made it a convenient and popular place for organized groups to work with the City Parks Division to remove invasive plants such as buckthorn and garlic mustard and to construct and maintain woodchip trails. The woods is likely to be an inviting place for future native habitat restoration projects particularly in areas that are being cleared of invasive plant species and at the impaired sites of a demolished house, a land fill and an old orchard along Birch Island Road and the concrete slab in the northeast corner of the woods.

Trailheads could be landscaped with native plants, shrubs, trees and wildflowers, (favored by the Birch Island Woods Management Plan Task Force) to provide visitors with a sense that they are entering a special place that deserves their respect and support.

A WOODS KEEPER

BIWCA would be a reasonable place for a kind of woods keeper program. There are examples nationwide of volunteer “park ranger” programs for the city to evaluate. Such a program would possibly supplement the work of the city’s seasonal park ranger and boundary monitor employees. Volunteer woods keepers would be trained to look for and report on encroachments and such abuses as dumping, littering and uncivil behavior but would also perform interpretational and public relation functions. A single woods keeper might patrol not only the BIW Conservation Area, but also Eden Wood, Birch Island, Edgewood and Edenvale Parks, Edenvale Boulevard Trail and Edenvale and Gateway Conservation Areas. During high use times, woods keepers could be posted at selected stations to answer questions, give directions, enjoy and appreciate their trails and open spaces.

CONSERVATION EASEMENT

What are the benefits? A conservation easement placed on the woods and held by a qualified conservation organization such as the Minnesota Land Trust should be considered. Second party conservation easements function as a perpetual insurance policy to defend the conservation purposes of a property such as the woods. If future city administrations and elected city councils ignore, improperly manage or violate the conservation purposes of the woods, the easement holder would enforce the terms of the easement.

A number of Minnesota Cities, including Red Wing, Grand Marais, Wayzata, Minnetonka and Oakdale have acquired open spaces for their park systems with conservation easements or are considering CE’s on their existing parks. Note: The Glenshire unit of the Edenvale Conservation Area (Edenvale Boulevard and Sunshine Drive) and the Kaerwar property (Gerard and Gordon Drives) that is slated to be donated to the City are protected by Minnesota Land Trust Conservation Easements.

Non-conservation interests and political and development pressure can sway a city to abandon protected open spaces. And it can happen in Eden Prairie. To wit: an initiative to consider the woods and other conservation areas as off leash dog parks did occur in 2004. Although the question was eventually scuttled, it should be noted that the “bark park” concept for the woods and the Richard T. Anderson Conservation Area was presented for public consideration by the former parks director and others and received support from off-leash dog park advocates who exhibited little knowledge of or interest in the ecosystems or the high value that residents and organizations like Friends of Birch Island Woods place on these natural areas. (See this website’s December 11, 2004 news item.)

This kind of challenge to Eden Prairie’s conservation areas - be it from the likes of dog park or paintball range proponents - will certainly occur again. And future city councils may lack the set of values or the motivation to protect the woods or even be aware that voters and taxpayers chose to keep the woods a natural sanctuary. A conservation easement attached to the property title, would remind them.

HERITAGE DISTRICT

Driving through the Birch Island area brings a smile to the face and a lighter foot on the gas pedal; walking through it enables one to directly connect to the earth, to the real source of food and to the past.

The roads skirting the Woods provide the last unobstructed view of a forest in Eden Prairie as well as an operating farm which still produces raspberries and vegetables. The historic camp at Eden Wood still welcomes kids in need; bike riders share an old railroad line with ghostly steam engines bound for Puget Sound; golfers play on an emerald gem of a course, truant teenagers at the County Home School repair their lives by running a horse ranch and building wood boats; Sioux and Chippewa spirits gaze upon Birch Island Lake where migrating loons still call out as they have for thousands of years.

The concept of designating the greater Birch Island area (including Glen Lake Golf Center and the Home School in Minnetonka) a Heritage District, was met with interest several years ago by the Eden Prairie History Society, the EP Heritage Preservation Commission, Friends of Birch Island Woods and others.

A heritage designation would most likely be in the form of a special, city overlay district that could be used to guide and coordinate both voluntary and required management policy and development of the bundle of public and private, historic, environmental, scenic, recreational, agricultural and human service resources of the area. A heritage district designation would provide branding power that would help provide people, businesses, non-profits and units of government with a sense of place, perspective and stewardship linked to these very real, local and regional assets.

Click here to read more about the Heritage District Concept

IN CONCLUSION

The successful implementation of woods keepers, habitat restoration and organized-volunteer stewardship programs and a heritage district depends on dedicated leadership and support from a variety of private sector organizations and individuals. It is hoped that Friends of Birch Island Woods, the organization which led the successful campaign to save the woods from development, will be among those that take a lead in caring for the woods, park and lake in the future.

The gift of simplicity that wilderness philosopher Sigurd Olson writes of can be discovered at the edges of our neighborhoods -- in our conservation areas and parks and the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge -- in places where the quiet, natural processes of the earth can still be detected. Birch Island Woods and Park form such a place.

NOTE: Jeff Strate has been an open space activist, commentator, writer and speaker since 1993. Jeff founded Friends of Birch Island Woods, served two terms on the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Land Trust and has worked with a number of groups in the southwest suburbs to protect environmental resources and green spaces.

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