LCCMR recommends funding to protect rock outcrop areas

OLIVIA -- Scattered amongst the rock outcrops of the Upper Minnesota River Valley are shallow wetlands holding plants as hardy as the pioneers who first etched their living from the prairie lands around them.

OLIVIA -- Scattered amongst the rock outcrops of the Upper Minnesota River Valley are shallow wetlands holding plants as hardy as the pioneers who first etched their living from the prairie lands around them.

Flowering plants like the water hyssop condense their entire life cycle into a one-month span. They set their seed before the small pools of rainwater on which they depend for life and it evaporates under the summer sun like a boiling pot left on the burner. Other plants, like the mouse tail, survive only on the very margins of these shallow wetlands in a layer of muck spread no thicker than peanut butter. It's all for the chance to sprout a tiny wildflower in the very earliest days of spring.

These rock outcrop wetlands and the plants they hold are rarely found elsewhere in Minnesota. They are impossible to replicate due to their unique nature, according to Fred Harris, a natural resource specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He has catalogued many of their botanical treasures for the state's biological survey.

There is now hope that these unique wetlands can be protected in what Tom Kalahar of the Renville County Soil and Waters Conservation District calls a win-win formula for both private landowners in the valley, and the public.

The Minnesota Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources has approved a proposal to create a hybrid of the state's Re-Invest in Minnesota program. If approved by the Legislature, it will allow the Renville and Redwood County SWCDs to purchase perpetual easements from willing landowners to protect the rock outcrop wetlands along the Minnesota River corridor between the two counties.


The LCCMR recommended providing $563,000 in funding to launch the program.

It would be sufficient to fund staff time and easements to protect an estimated 200 acres of rock outcrop, said Kalahar. He and colleague Jeff Kjorness of the Renville County SWCD drafted the proposal.

Kalahar said it gives landowners the opportunity "to do the right thing." Most people will make the right decision to protect these resources if given the opportunity, he explained.

More than one-half of the river valley's rock outcrop wetlands are located in Renville and Redwood counties. The outcrops are coming under increasing pressure, said Kalahar. They could disappear as surely as did 99 percent of the native prairie and 95 percent of the shallow prairie wetlands that once defined this region's landscape.

The growing demand for high quality aggregate for roads and building construction has led to interest in mining the granite outcrops.

Kalahar warns that hard rock mining of the rock outcrops is much different than opening a gravel pit, which can be reclaimed to vegetation once the gravel is depleted.

There is no reclaiming the wetlands that are part of 3 billion-year old rock formations. Take out the rock, and the wetlands are gone too.

"Once they are gone, there is no putting them back,'' said Kalahar.


Mining isn't the only pressure they face. Over-grazing by cattle can wreck havoc with the diversity of wetland plants as well, said Kalahar.

Also, the valley's river bluffs are seeing growing interest in residential development, which can also impact the outcrops and the wetlands they hold.

Kalahar said many landowners are caught between their economic needs and the opportunities the outcrops represent, and their desire to do the right thing and protect an important resource for future generations. The rock outcrop easements will make it possible to protect the wetlands, while also preserving their recreational value. Landowners will still enjoy the property for its hunting opportunities.

Of course, the unique beauty of the outcrops is protected as well. Kalahar said that was among the points he and Kjorness emphasized when they presented their proposal to the LCCMR members last month. They described the Minnesota River as the "Boundary Waters of Southern Minnesota'' and emphasized the importance of protecting what is truly one of the state's most valuable natural resources.

Currently, the state's wild and scenic river act prohibits hard rock mining on outcrops located in the narrow corridor of land so designated. The act only protects a portion of the outcrops, and does nothing to address the economic pressures faced by landowners, Kalahar noted. He said the easement program will help put some balance into the law by providing compensation to landowners willing to protect so valuable a resource.

The Renville-Redwood rock outcrop proposal was one of 85 proposals totaling over $62 million presented to the LCCMR. The LCCMR is recommending 29 of the proposals for over $22 million in funding from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and $500,000 from the LAWCON account. The recommendations go to the state Legislature for final approval.

Kalahar said they hope to see the easement program expanded in future years to include portions of the river corridor beyond Renville and Redwood counties.

What To Read Next
Get Local