St. Olaf Magazine | Summer 2020

A Natural Investment

Sunset on Big Pond. Photo by Evan Pak ’19

As a collegiate cross country runner, Britt Gangeness ’04 trained on the more than five miles of trails winding over the prairie and wooded Natural Lands that encircle the St. Olaf campus. As autumn progressed, the yellow goldenrod and purple asters dried up and gave way to the red and tawny stalks of big and little bluestem. Gangeness ran through it all. “From August through November you see the evolution of the prairie,” she says.

This evolving beauty of the college’s Natural Lands stayed with Gangeness long after graduation and informed her career choice. Today she’s an environmental outreach specialist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, introducing families to natural resource issues and activities through a program called We Are Water MN. She’s one of many Oles who have been inspired by the Natural Lands of St. Olaf.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the Natural Lands, which have become a campus trademark. The 350 acres of restored forests, wetlands, and prairie, representing the natural legacy of the landscape before the college was founded, have become part of the St. Olaf brand, a refreshing refuge for students, a selling point for recruitment, an outdoor laboratory for student learning and research, and a valuable natural legacy for the surrounding community.

“The whole picture that it shows to students is something that’s attractive,” says Paul Egeland ’65, who established the Morton and Thelma Egeland Endowment, named for his parents, to support the St. Olaf Natural Lands, education in ecology and conservation biology, and sustainable agricultural practices on college lands. He did so because of his lifelong love of the outdoors and of birds and bird watching. (See Natural Lands Benefactors)

“We hope that every student graduates from St. Olaf with an understanding of the importance of nature. Whether they do it professionally or not, they can be part of encouraging the preservation of nature in the rest of their lives.”

The intersection of student life with the Natural Lands surrounding campus helps to achieve one of the educational goals of the college, says Curator of the St. Olaf Natural Lands Kathy Shea, a professor of biology and environmental studies. “We hope that every student graduates from St. Olaf with an understanding of the importance of nature. Whether they do it professionally or not, they can be part of encouraging the preservation of nature in the rest of their lives.”

Yellow prairie coneflowers. Photo by Gene Bakko

Gene Bakko, professor emeritus of biology and St. Olaf’s first curator of the Natural Lands until his retirement in 2009, was recently driving around campus, pointing out restored forests along Minnesota Highway 19.

Nearly all of this land had been farmland at one time, purchased by the college years ago to control the kind of development that occurred at the perimeter of the 300-acre campus, Bakko pointed out.

Interest in turning these plowed lands to back to nature began with an old storage cave on campus that had been used “since horse and buggy days” to preserve meat and dairy products. “Once we had refrigeration, [the college administration] forgot about the cave. But kids will be kids, and they were always going in there and horsing around,” says Bakko. “So the college destroyed the cave — caving it in, so to speak.” But this left a barren hillside on campus.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the Natural Lands. The 350 acres of restored forests, wetlands, and prairie is a refreshing refuge for students, an outdoor laboratory for learning and research, and a valuable natural legacy for the college and surrounding community.

Shortly after, in 1987, construction was set to begin on Ytterboe Hall, which as designed would have taken out a swath of existing forests, including mature maples and oaks. Many faculty were concerned about this plan and volunteered Bakko to speak with St. Olaf President Melvin D. George. George, a longtime member of The Nature Conservancy, was not just concerned by the news — he was alarmed. The architects were enlisted to re-site the building to save as many trees as possible. For the saplings that couldn’t be spared, Bakko organized a tree-planting party to dig them up and use them to reforest the old cave site.

Thus followed several big tree plantings by staff and students to begin reforesting other sites around campus that had been cleared of their native forest. Bakko proposed to the college putting 23 acres into the new federal Conservation Reserve Program, which involved taking marginal farmland out of production and devoting it to conservation. As a result, the college collected a small income from the federal government, about the amount it would receive by renting the land to a farmer.

Transforming agricultural land into wetlands in 1989. Photo by Gene Bakko

The ad hoc restoration effort became more deliberate as the college worked with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to develop a land stewardship plan that made recommendations for what were now becoming known as St. Olaf’s Natural Lands.

Between 1989 and 2004, more than 150 acres of farmland were restored to native tallgrass prairie, an ecotype that once covered much of southern Minnesota. An additional 200 acres were forests — either remnants that survived over time or old farmland that had been seeded or started with seedlings. During these years, approximately 40,000 tree seedlings were planted on much of this farmland, with the remainder of the land put into trees by direct seeding at a rate of 2,000 seeds per acre. Leif Knecht ’73, who owns Knecht’s Nurseries & Landscaping near the campus, was very generous with his time and equipment in helping with some of the plantings, says Bakko. “The goal has been to recreate the hardwood forests that once were common to the area. We’ve been trying to stick with native species.”

Today, the Natural Lands – wetlands, prairie, forest – are teaming with wildlife. Photo by Tom Roster
Tossing tree seeds on old farmland near campus. Photo by Gene Bakko
Prairie flowers. Photo by Gene Bakko

The Natural Lands got a big boost when Don Nelson ’50 gifted the college with the Henry and Agnes Nelson Family Endowment for the Natural Lands and Environmental Science, in honor of his parents. (See Natural Lands Benefactors) This, along with Paul Egeland’s endowment and a conservation easement through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, provided income to the college’s Land Stewardship Endowment to pay for land management. The easement offers permanent protection for lands that provide wildlife habitat, groundwater recharge, and soil and runoff control. An additional grant from the conservation group Pheasants Forever allowed the college to purchase prairie seed.

Since 1989, more than 150 acres of farmland surrounding the St. Olaf campus have been restored to native tallgrass prairie, an ecotype that once covered much of southern Minnesota. An additional 200 acress were seeded or planted with tree seedlings to restore a diverse and sustainable hardwood forest environment.

Restoration has continued to the present, with buckthorn removal, prescribed burning, and scheduled seeding of forests along Heath Creek, located south of Minnesota 19. Most lands with the potential to be restored now have been. The biggest challenge is ongoing management — cutting brush and burning in the prairies to knock back invasive species and encourage the growth of native grass and other herbaceous plants, known as forbs. Thinning forests, and identifying and removing exotic species such as buckthorn and reed canary grass require constant vigil.

Much of the land management, including prairie burns, is carried out by students. Photo by James Daly ’13

Last year, Nelson made an additional gift that allowed the college to increase the management of the Natural Lands to a full-time position. Nic Nelson (no relation to Don), manager of the Natural Lands, maintains the diverse ecology of the forests, wetlands, and prairies, acts as a field resource for student biologists, and is working on the restoration of oak forests in the Heath Creek Woods.

“Don’s gift has been a terrific boost to enhancing the quality of the lands, in being able to devote the necessary time to care for it properly,” says Bakko. “And we are very fortunate to have hired Nic Nelson, who comes to us with excellent experience.”

(L-R) Professor Emeritus of Biology Gene Bakko, Natural Lands Manager Nic Nelson, and Professor of Biology Kathy Shea

Restoring old farmland to prairie and forests has been a boon for wildlife. The land has attracted the usual suspects — foxes, rabbits, turkey, and deer. A coyote den inspired the names for the nearby North and South Coyote Ponds by Eaves Avenue. Waterfowl of all kinds live around and migrate through such ponds and wetlands, including trumpeter swans, tundra swans, scaup, mergansers, mallards, teal, wood ducks, and ruddy ducks. There are also plenty of frogs, whose chorusing during the springtime Bakko describes as “almost deafening.” To preserve native birds, Bakko created a bluebird trail containing 64 birdhouses that fledge not only 50–80 bluebirds each nesting season but dozens of tree swallows, house wrens, and chickadees. The restored land is also home to nesting woodcock, whose male mating dance is a sight to see. And for the past two nesting seasons, sandhill cranes have hatched chicks in the grasslands.

Restoring old farmland to prairie, forests, and wetlands has been a boon for wildlife on campus. Nature photos by Evan Pak ’19, Will Cipos ’19, Tom Roster, and Gene Bakko.

There’s one native species that Bakko would love to see return, though he admits the chances are small to nil. “What I’d like to have — just a pipe dream — is bison.”

The Natural Lands have emerged as an important educational amenity at St. Olaf. Student naturalists plan projects that engage fellow students in the lands. And faculty use the lands in their teaching.

In addition to the Natural Lands, the college also owns 440 acres that are leased out to farmers, but with the stipulation that it be farmed sustainably to reduce pesticide use, erosion, and runoff. The farmland has its own value, besides the modest rental income. “It showcases sustainable farming methods to the St. Olaf and surrounding communities,” says Shea.

Students engaged in STOGROW work college agricultural land. STOGROW crops supply the college’s food service with fresh, organic vegetables. Photo by Kierra Lopac ’19

The Natural Lands and agricultural lands have emerged as an important educational amenity. Shea works with St. Olaf student naturalists, who plan projects that engage fellow students in the lands, encourage faculty to use the lands in their classes, and invite townsfolk to participate in tours of the Natural Lands, photo contests, and other activities. Shea also works with students who demonstrate organic farming through the student farm, STOGROW, located near the wind turbine. “The goal,” says Shea, “is to make sure the community is aware of the Natural Lands and the faculty can use the natural and agricultural lands in their teaching.”

Many students have conducted research on the Natural Lands over the years. Just recently, Izzy Istephanous ’20 surveyed bumblebees. Katie Hoffman ’21 and Margot Groskreutz ’20 sampled ponds, including three on the Natural Lands, to study how land use affects pond ecology and biogeochemistry. Megan Kartheiser ’22 and Allie Raduege ’21 studied the growth and survival of northern species of conifers planted on the Natural Lands.

Dave Legvold, a farmer who leases farmland from St. Olaf, has worked with several students on ag-related projects. “Studies to maintain and improve soil health have been a big part of the student research that I’ve supervised over many years,” said Shea.

Scholarly research by Megan Gregory ’01 on sustainable farming practices changed the way St. Olaf’s 400 acres of fertile farmland is sown and harvested each year.

For example, scholarly research by Megan Gregory ’04 on sustainable farming practices showed no-till farming could be as profitable as regular farming because of lower input costs for fertilizer, pesticides, and fuel. Her work served to change the way St. Olaf’s 400 acres of fertile farmland is sown and harvested each year.

Emma Cornwell ’13 worked with Legvold to research optimal fertilizer application rates for both plant growth and profitability. Cornwell also checked bluebird houses, surveyed trees on restored plots, escorted preschool kids on learning excursions, and pulled buckthorn. Her passion for the St. Olaf Natural Lands led her to graduate work in environmental education at the University of Washington, and to IslandWood, an experiential learning center on Bainbridge Island, Washington, that teaches out-of-doors. “When you spend more time outside,” Cornwell says, “you want to take care of that place.”

The Natural Lands are also a place where students can find peace and quiet or train for sports, running the trails or even tucking into the tall grass surrounding Big Pond to practice blowing a duck call.

Recreation benefits extend to people off campus, too. Northfielders enjoy walking the trails and cross country skiing in winter. “The Natural Lands provide other benefits to the community as well,” says Bakko. After farmland near Big Pond was restored to prairie more than 20 years ago, recurrent flooding of the residential area to the east virtually stopped.

The Natural Lands continue to be a long-time project with a long-term payoff for the college, evolving from old farmland to a vital resource for the college, its educational mission, and its social life.

Says Bakko, “You don’t restore wetlands, seed the prairie, and plant trees for yourself. You do this for the future. You do this for the next generation of Oles.”

The Natural Lands are an invaluable resource for biology and environmental studies projects. Students conduct water research on Big Pond Photo by Will Cipros ’19

Greg Breining is a frequent contributor to St. Olaf Magazine and has written about science and nature for more than 30 years.