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Bringing back the prairie

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Carolyn Lange / Tribune Kory Klebe strips off seeds from big bluestem prairie grass at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center near Spicer to demonstrate one of the tasks for volunteers in an upcoming work day at the center in rural Spicer. The one-day program Sept. 24 is part of National Public Lands Day. Online registration for the event ends Friday.2 / 4
Carolyn Lange / Tribune A stand of big bluestem grass bends in the breeze at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in rural Spicer. Volunteers will help with prairie restoration tasks during a one-day program Sept. 24 as part of National Public Lands Day. Online registration for the event ends Friday.3 / 4
Carolyn Lange / Tribune Piles of cedar trees that were cut down this year will be replaced with native prairie grasses and flowers as part of the prairie restoration project at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center in rural Spicer. Volunteers will help during a one-day program Sept. 24 as part of National Public Lands Day. Online registration for the event ends Friday.4 / 4

SPICER—With 500 acres of land in need of continual maintenance, there will be plenty of projects for volunteers to work on during a one-day volunteer effort scheduled for next month at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.

The focus for the day will be a piece of virgin prairie possibly thousands of years old that is being cleared of invasive cedar trees, sumac and buckthorn so that native big bluestem and sideoats can be restored.

"The more people we get, the bigger the project, the more that gets done," said Kory Klebe, who coordinates environmental education, shooting sports and youth education programs at the center.

The call for volunteers to donate time and elbow grease for one day at the popular outdoor environmental education center near Spicer will be replicated across the country during National Public Lands Day, Sept. 24.

This is the largest, single-day volunteer event to serve public lands, according to the National Environmental Education Foundation.

The three-hour event—from 9 a.m. to noon—at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center is being done in partnership with the University of Minnesota's Extension Master Naturalist program, which will provide lunch and T-shirts to volunteers who register online by this Friday's deadline.

Since 2012, the Minnesota Master Naturalist Program has facilitated the National Public Lands Day program at sites across the state.

To date, more than 600 volunteers have removed invasive species, planted pollinator gardens and protected newly planted trees for over 3,000 service hours at public lands as part of this stewardship project, according to Christian Wood, Community Outreach Specialist for the naturalist program.

This year there are 14 sites in Minnesota selected for the one-day program.

Most sites are in the metro area or near large cities. Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center is the only one in the heart of rural, central Minnesota.

There about 300 acres of prairie land at Prairie Woods that are gradually being restored and managed in an effort to make it look more like it did hundreds of years ago.

Back then prairie fires and the "hoof action" of herds of bison "kept the prairie a prairie" and reduced trees and woody shrubs that now make up much of the landscape, Klebe said.

In recent years, there have been controlled fires every spring on some segments of the property that encourage regrowth of 5-foot-tall native grasses, which Klebe said can have roots that grow 10 to 15 feet below ground.

A state grant that was matched by the local Pheasants Forever chapter funded removal of cedar trees and thigh-high sumac from the hill that will be the main project site for the one-day volunteer project. Piles of cedar trunks and branches dot the hill waiting to be burned this fall.

But while the vista on the hill is now cleared of the big trees and woody shrubs, there is more finetuning work to do.

Klebe bends down to pull up new growth of sumac that needs to be removed by volunteers.

"We need to get all these little guys," he said.

Klebe then grabs a couple slender stems of big bluestem grass, strips off some seeds and scatters them on black dirt where a cedar tree had once grown.

The task of collecting seeds and reseeding native grasses will also be part of the volunteer efforts.

The scope of work depends on how many people show up.

"If we get five people, it's a small project," he said. "If I get 50 people with loppers or if we get 150 people, we do that and we do this," he said, pointing to different areas of the grounds.

"We want to bring it back to the prairie it should be," Klebe said.

Wood said naturalists who are enrolled with the U of M program are asked to bring loppers, which are pruning tools, and handsaws. Those with chainsaw certification also are encouraged to attend.

Volunteers are asked to register online at It involves setting up an online account.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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