A natural learning space
St. Olaf College boasts a beautiful 300 acre campus that delights the community and visitors with its majestic limestone buildings and towering trees — but St. Olaf’s stunning natural beauty doesn’t end there. Wrapping around campus is a true gem: 350 acres of woods, wetlands, and prairies dedicated to natural habitat and 444 acres of agricultural land adjacent to the campus.
Natural habitat restoration began at St. Olaf in 1989 in an effort to reclaim land that had been cleared for agricultural use. It has been a boon to campus ever since — both for students and the creatures that call this slice of natural world home.
Students interested in biology or environmental studies have plenty of research opportunities studying the unique restoration process. A number of student research projects since 1993 have been done in cooperation with local farmers on St. Olaf land with the goal of developing more sustainable farming methods. “I liked the idea of contributing to research about the environmental effects of farming while also helping a local farmer to optimize his economic returns,” Emma Cornwell ’13 says. Cornwall later spent time working at the FoodLab and IslandWood environmental nonprofits and is now an elementary school teacher in Seattle, Washington. Students recently collaborated with a farmer to study the use of cover crops. Another project studied the effects of burning on prairie soils and plant biodiversity.
Seven Student Naturalists and eight Student Natural Lands Workers are employed on the Natural Lands. The Student Naturalists focus on environmental education and leading service projects while the Natural Lands Workers focus on maintenance. “I believe with all my heart that if people take the time to observe how incredible the natural world is, they will inevitably want to protect it,” Student Naturalist Julia Ebert ’18 says. “I’m thrilled to be working with the other student naturalists to encourage Oles and the Northfield community to notice the wonder of nature.”
Curator of Natural Lands and Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Kathy Shea notes that the rusty patched bumblebee, an endangered species, was recently seen on the Natural Lands as well as in local yards in Northfield. She points to this as evidence that the Natural Lands provide a buffer to help maintain local biodiversity. “The Natural Lands are a community resource in which everyone can learn about our natural world,” she says. “In addition to serving as a living laboratory for our students, we have students from the local preschool and elementary schools take field trips and many community members who go on regular walks in the Natural Lands.”
Over 100 acres of trees have been planted, re-establishing a slice of the dominant Big Woods (maple-basswood) forest type originally found in this area. These woods include seven acres of coniferous species, planted primarily for educational purposes. A 15-acre parcel of native hardwood trees called Norway Valley is the oldest woodland area on campus.
- About six miles of running trails run through approximately 150 acres of reconstructed native tall grass prairie, with flowing native grasses and dotted with wildflowers. The restored prairies have 10 species of native grasses and 25-40 species of native forbs (wildflowers). Although originally half of Minnesota was covered by prairie, it now makes up only 1 percent of the Minnesota landscape. The Natural Lands are a glimpse into what the land everywhere looked like hundreds of years ago.
Fifteen wetlands have been restored, providing a haven for a variety of waterfowl. The largest wetland is Big Pond, stretching across nine acres, and a favorite spot for sunset viewing. The wetlands are part of the Cannon River watershed and help with seasonal flood control, soil stability, and ground water recharge, as well as provide valuable wildlife habitat.
- The bluebird trail of 64 specially designed birdhouses placed through woodlands and prairies is an especially exciting feature, recently featured in a Star Tribune article. Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) populations have declined dramatically in recent years, and the establishment of nestboxes in good nesting habitat helps to maintain and restore bluebird populations. The boxes fledge 50-80 bluebirds every year, as well as 150 tree swallows and house wrens. “Bluebirds would undoubtedly be on the endangered species list if it weren’t for bluebirders — people who put up bluebird houses,” says professor emeritus Gene Bakko, who helped establish the Natural Lands and bluebird trail years ago.