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Sibley State Park's new exhibit features the oak savanna in west central Minnesota

An inviting replica of a bur oak, filled with hands-on learning activities, greets visitors to the new oak savanna exhibit at Sibley State Park west of New London. Dick Clayton, park naturalist, left, and Gary Bullemer, park natural resource manager, show off the exhibit highlights. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

NEW LONDON - Once common, the oak savanna is now among the most endangered ecosystems in the world.

It is also the defining characteristic of Sibley State Park, located west of New London on the glacial moraine topography of west central Minnesota.

And now, the state park has the opportunity to inform visitors about this environment as never before.

"This is what this is all about, understanding the natural resources in the park,'' said Dick Clayton, park naturalist.

He spoke while leading the way into the newly developed oak savanna exhibit. It's located in the park's interpretive center.

Thanks to Legacy funding, the park has been able to create an exhibit that is as attention getting as it is informative.

A life-size replica of a bur oak tree greets visitors to the room that holds the exhibit. It offers hands-on learning for people of all ages.

The eye-catching centerpiece of the exhibit is a wall-sized mural. It realistically depicts the landscape of the area, including Sibley Park as it appeared prior to settlement. The mural is based on U.S. Geological Society topographical maps of the surrounding landscape and our understanding of the plants and animals that made it home.

The mural transports a visitor back in time by offering a view of this world from the vantage point of Mount Tom. Instead of the heavily forested landscape now seen from this well-known high point, a visitor looks over a park-like scene. Bur oaks are widely spaced on a rolling landscape of grasses and forbs. Herds of bison and elk are prominent.

"Absolutely amazed,'' is the response Clayton said he receives from those viewing the exhibit for the first time.

Gary Bullemer, the park's natural resource manager, devotes much of his energies to preserving and restoring the oak savanna ecosystem in the park. Fire is the primary tool, and that story is explained in the exhibit as well.

Visitors can look over the protective suits and equipment used by Bullemer and others who conduct prescribed burns in the park.

Bur oaks have thick, fire-resistant bark and deep tap roots that can carry the trees through the frequent dry periods on the sandy soils of the glacial moraine. "They're just really tough as nails,'' said Bullemer.

These and other characteristics of an oak savanna make for a very interesting and important story to tell, and both Bullemer and Clayton had long sought to do so. Along with Bob Beck, regional interpretive naturalist for the state park system, they planned for three years how they could best tell this important story to visitors.

Yet they never imagined the story could be told so well. Legacy funding allowed the park to contract with Blue Rhino Studio of Eagan to build the natural-looking replicas, and design its oak-themed décor. The professional assistance makes possible an exhibit that is far more compelling -- and informative -- than they could ever have achieved on a piece-by-piece basis, they noted.

The exhibit is now one of three in the interpretive center. There are adjoining, and separate exhibits on the park's wetland resources and its glacial geology.

Anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 visitors will find their way to the interpretive building each year, and Clayton and Bullemer have no doubt -- many will be spending time learning about the oak savanna and all of the natural wonders it holds.

Whether they visit the exhibit before they explore the park or after, they are sure to take home a much greater appreciation and understanding of the natural resources Sibley State Park preserves.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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