Belle Prairie Park being returned to pre-settlement era state

Morrison County employee Ed Whitford is shown assisting Great River Greening in trimming trees at Belle Prairie Park.
Morrison County employee Ed Whitford is shown assisting Great River Greening in trimming trees at Belle Prairie Park.

by Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer


A three-year project being implemented to restore parts of Belle Prairie Park to their native condition got under way in mid-December.

Working through a cooperative agreement, Morrison County and St. Paul company Great River Greening started phase one of a three-phase plan to eliminate non-native and undesirable trees, brush and undergrowth from a 40-acre section of the park.

The 132-acre park was envisioned by a group of residents of Belle Prairie Township in about the mid-1970s and early 1980s.

“The township made a preliminary application for funds from Land and Water Conservation (LAWCON), to acquire 86 acres from the Diocese of St. Cloud, the area surrounding Belle Prairie Church,” said Morrison County Public Works Director Steve Backowski. “Then the township asked the county to make the formal application for the funding of $105,000, and the land was purchased.”

A few years later, 46 more acres were purchased for an additional $102,000.

“The county has been slowly making improvements as funding is available,” Backowski said. “Roads, a picnic shelter, rest rooms, playground equipment, water pumps and fire pits have all been put in.”

A former ball park was converted into a nine-hole disc golf course, after the Public Works Department joined forces with Public Health to buy the baskets with funding from the Statewide Health Improvement Plan (SHIP). One of the county’s goals is to expand the course to 18 holes.

“We’re restored three five-acre pieces of prairie,” said Backowski. “Some are doing better than others.”

One day earlier this year, Great River Greening contacted the county trying to gauge interest in being part of a larger initiative.

“They were making a bigger application for funding for work on a number of pieces of public lands,” Backowski said. “They work in the Twin Cities up through Central Minnesota.”

One of the first things done after the county received the go-ahead from the County Board to participate, was an assessment of park land.

Different ecological areas of the park were identified, such as pin oak-bur oak woodland, willow-dogwood shrub swamp, dry sand-gravel oak savanna, pine plantation/white pine-oak woodland and prairie. One of the project’s goals is managing the ecosystem as a whole.

Great River Greening obtained Legacy funds to bring the area to its pre-settlement state. Their funding covers $79,097 of the cost for the three-year project. Morrison County will be contributing $29,500 over three years.

The project area includes the land at the south end of the main wooded area transitioning toward the north end of park.

“Previously restored native prairie area will remain untouched,” Backowski said. “The area being worked on is not near the picnic area or the playground.”

“Phase one will involve removing 50 to 75 percent of trees and brush so the area will revert to the historic density of the native savanna,” he said. “The second phase area will have 25 to 50 percent of the trees removed, with 25 percent of the trees being removed in the phase three area.”

Buckthorn will be taken out along with other undesirable growth such as prickly ash.

Before the project is completed, native grasses will be seeded in the area.

The county Sentenced to Serve program will be used for some of the work such as hauling brush.

Great River Greening’s Steve Thomforde will be doing presentations around the county as part of the agreement, looking for volunteers for parts of the project as needed.

“Going forward, our priorities are to continue with the prairie restoration and control leafy spurge,” said Backowski. “For long-term maintenance we will do some controlled burns utilizing our existing equipment. We will mow one or two times a year, preventing the same overgrowth from happening in the future.”

“Belle Prairie Park is a valuable asset for Morrison County,” said Commissioner Tom Wenzel. “We want to do this.”