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Can the Prairie Be Saved?
By Dan Gunderson
July 21, 2000
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Federal, state and county officials, mining companies, and environmental groups are wrestling with a question: what's more important - rare native prairie, or the rich gravel deposits that lie beneath? Less than one-half of one percent of native prairie remains in Minnesota, and some of the best is in Clay County. Growing demand for gravel used in the booming construction industry poses an unprecedented threat to the prairie.

For images of the prairie and the gravel pit. See the slide show.
the eastern shore of ancient, glacial Lake Agassiz, it's not difficult to imagine water, rather than flowing fields of green, stretching to the horizon. The prairie has been evolving since the lake receded from this beach some 9,000 years ago. It's considered one of the best dry prairies in the world.

A truck rumbling by in a cloud of dust is a reminder that prairie is not the only important resource here. Some of the richest gravel deposits in Minnesota lie beneath this ground. Piles of gravel poke up like islands in the sea of grass.

Gravel is a basic construction material; used for everything from concrete sidewalks and house foundations, to road construction and repair. A booming economy means more construction. More construction means a greater demand for gravel.

The prairie is a subtle landscape; experiencing its unique plants and animals takes time and patience.

In early spring the strange spectacle of the prairie chicken mating dance echoes across this ridge at sunrise. In the fall, large flocks of sandhill cranes gather to begin their annual migration. In summer, it's home to dozens of relatively rare plants and animals.

As Minnesota Department of Natural Resources prairie biologist Peter Buessler walks across a 160-acre prairie plot, surrounded on three sides by gravel pits, a bright orange butterfly drifts by, fighting a strong prairie breeze.

The state of Minnesota has identified 17 rare animals and 19 rare plants on this site. Researchers have been collecting insects here for six years and expect to identify more than 2,000 species, some as yet undiscovered. The most notable insects here are the endangered Eulers Arctic and Dakota Skipper butterflies.

This prairie was part of what remains of the nearly 20,000 square miles of prairie that once covered western Minnesota. Most of the prairie became farmland. This beach ridge escaped the farmers plow because it was too dry and rocky, considered wasteland when the European settlers came through. But in the past 50 years, gravel mines have inexorably chewed up the remaining prairie.

"I wish I'd a won the lottery back in the 1970s. That would have been great," says Richard Pemble, a biologist at Minnesota State University Moorhead, who says he would have bought some of this land. In the early 1970s, he helped complete the first survey of remaining native prairie sites. He says nearly half of the areas identified then as important, have since been destroyed.

He says it's much like an architect watching historically-significant buildings fall to the wrecking ball. "As a biologist, I feel the same way as I see places I know as a professional are so important, are so significant and so unusual. To lose those just makes your stomach churn. It's really hard to take."

The Department of Natural Resources and private groups, such as the Nature Conservancy, have purchased and preserved prairie, but state prairie biologist Peter Buessler says the state cannot stop the destruction of remaining areas. "To save prairie, you have to negotiate, because we as citizens, the public in general, have not created a law that says prairie is endangered," he says.

But even without a specific law, Pemble argues the state's little-used Critical Areas Act of 1973 could be used to preserve native prairie. The act allows the governor to halt development by designating a site as a "critical natural area." There is little awareness of the law among prairie preservationists and no one has attempted to use it for the Felton complex.

Intricate negotiations over the future of the Felton prairie complex are underway . A long-term land-use plan is being developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the DNR, private mining companies, and Clay County, which owns much of the land and the nearest gravel mine. The plan will focus on county-owned land, but it will likely also guide how the county regulates private development.

As the various interests gather in a cramped conference room in the Clay County courthouse for another session, large sheets of paper tacked on the walls highlight areas of agreement and dispute. For the county and private gravel industry, one statement is central to the negotiations: Not all prairie will be saved, not all gravel will be mined.

Private gravel company officials declined to be interviewed or were unavailable for comment.

"It's an ecosystem that cannot be replaced."

- Jon Evert
Clay County Commissioner
County Commissioner Jon Evert represents Clay County. He says he's committed to reaching an agreement both sides can live with, but he admits not all county officials share his viewpoint.

"It's one of those issues that seems to many people, kind of ridiculous that we're going to stop taking mineral resources that are essential for the continuation of civilization in this area to protect a few butterflies. But it's more than that. It's an ecosystem that cannot be replaced."

For the past 50 years the county has used the common process for mining gravel. Dig out the gravel until you hit water, then expand the mine outward. This spring the county requested permission to widen its pit again, The DNR agreed to allow up to nine acres of new mining over the next two years.

DNR prairie biologist Peter Buessler says the county argued the expansion was needed so there would be enough gravel to maintain county roads. "Yet underneath the base of that current pit, there is 6.9 million cubic yards of gravel," he says. "Some 50 to 70 years of gravel supply if you went straight down without taking up another acre of prairie."

County officials say mining the deeper gravel would increase the cost of gravel for the county and the townships. County Commissioner Jon Evert says the county wants to preserve parts of the prairie and leave open the option of mining other areas in the future.

As gravel resources diminish in the next 20 years, there will likely be increasing pressure to mine the high-quality gravel under the Felton Prairie. Prairie biologist Peter Buessler says there will always be a danger the prairie will be destroyed unless it receives permanent protection. He's also concerned about the impact of wind turbines proposed for the site. While seen as environmentally friendly, they can take a toll on the wildlife around them, especially birds, he says.

Buessler says small encroachments on the prairie are difficult to stop, but the cumulative effect may be disastrous. "One site, one instance, is that the end of the world? No, but it's always the second and the third and the fourth and the 10th and the 1,000th. When you add all these things up, it's the cumulative nature that has the greatest impact, but it's the farthest away from our thinking and what we have a lot of control over and what seems important."

The future of the Felton Prairie complex and the gravel beneath it will be decided by next year when a long-term land-use plan is completed.