Ecologically rich property in Blaine preserved

One of the most ecologically rich properties in the state is next to an interstate, business park and future school site.

Jason Husveth describes how he is standing in a rich fen area that has almost 80 native plant species.
Jason Husveth describes how he is standing in a rich fen area that has almost 80 native plant species. Photo by Eric Hagen

The Blaine Preserve Scientific and Natural Area is open to the public on the south side of 95th Avenue, just east of I-35W. Bring comfortable walking shoes, or better yet, rubber boots because there are no clearly laid-out trails and a wetland runs through.

The adjacent development shows the present reality that open spaces are being gobbled up by developers and thus changing the landscape.

Lollie and Jeff Jensen have lived in the area of Highway 65 and 97th Avenue in Blaine since 1987, so they recall the days when sod farms were abundant.

“I think we need more of it,” Lollie said with regards to protecting properties like this from development.

This preserve offers a snapshot of how parts of the north metro may have looked a hundred years ago, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It has one of the state’s rarest type of wetland, a rich fen, and almost 300 native plant species with 13 considered rare and four on the endangered species list.

“Decades ago, we would obliterate areas like this without knowing what we were doing because there wasn’t the expertise to identify areas like this,” said Steve Hirsh, ecological and water resources division director for the DNR.

Jason Husveth is “a guy who likes going in the swamps” as DNR Scientific and Natural Resources Program Supervisor Peggy Booth put it, and he is credited with discovering the importance of the site.

Husveth, principal ecologist and president of Critical Connections Ecological Services, was walking through Blaine’s Pioneer Park several years ago when he found twisted yellow-eyed grass. The significance of this grass, which Husveth said had not been spotted in Minnesota for 30 years, is that this endangered species typically associates with other rare species.

Husveth applied for grants to conduct a natural resources inventory on behalf of the city of Blaine and these DNR funds enabled him to “get a comprehensive look at the entire city” through aerial photos, soil information and land use history. He contacted owners of properties that had the greatest potential for rare plant species to get permission to walk on the sites.

Although it was overgrown, Husveth found twisted yellow-eyed grass and other interesting species when he stepped on the site for the first time Aug. 1, 1999.

“This is one of the highest quality and most diverse natural areas in the whole state of Minnesota,” said Husveth.

Fifteen percent of the state’s native plant species are on the site, he said.

The DNR wanted to buy the property from Ernie Phannschmidt in 2004. His family had hayed the site and there was a conveyance drainage ditch running through it, but the site was never farmed, used for grazing or drained, according to Husveth.

“What we could offer didn’t make sense to a person who knew this land has development potential as well,” Booth said.

The site continued to sit as the economy got worse and Brad Moen bought approximately 180 acres in the mid-2000s and subsequently sold property to a developer. An office building, church and Rasmussen College have been built and a K-8 special education school for Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916 will be open by the fall of 2014.

Transfer of ownership from Moen to the DNR for this 63-acre property was done as mitigation for the destruction of wetlands and protected species on these other sites, according to Richard Baker, endangered species coordinator for the DNR’s division of ecological and water resources. The DNR’s only financial contribution was $3,200 in transaction costs.

About five years before this transaction occurred, Moen and Husveth teamed up with the DNR, the Rice Creek Watershed District and the Board of Water and Soil and Resources to restore the property by first clearing 18 acres of aspen and birch to allow the rich fen to regenerate before invasive species could be removed by hand and prescribed burns could take place.

Although Moen said this has not been a good business venture for him, he does not regret it and loves seeing the passion Husveth and others have for this site.

“They were truly excited about the opportunity to take their hobbies on closer to home,” Moen said. “A lot of people bird watch and do photography. Not everybody golfs.”

The Blaine preserve is now one of 159 scientific and natural areas in the state with the closest being 47 acres just northwest of the I-35W and 95th Avenue Northeast exit near the Anoka County-Blaine Airport. The Metropolitan Airports Commission owns this property and the DNR holds a conservation easement, according to Larissa Mottl, DNR central region scientific and natural area coordinator.

“It’s a unique project not only because of its location in a metro area, the number of rare species there are, but also because a number of people worked for 12 years trying to figure out how to make it all come together and protect it,” Booth said.

Between 50 and 60 people visited the preserve the evening of July 25 for a tour and to help with clearing invasive species such as spotted knapweed, and buckthorn. The DNR will occasionally conduct prescribed burns, but much of the invasive species will need to be cleared by hand.

Several people who biked in for the dedication ceremony commented on how happy they are to see this property be preserved for future generations.

Tom Burr and his wife Nancy Griffith bought their home in Shoreview, near the Blaine border, 12 years ago because of its proximity to Rice Creek Park and are happy to see this property preserved.

“I consider it money well spent,” Burr said.

Eric Hagen is at
[email protected]