On Saturday Oct. 9, Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies and Director of Natural Lands, Charles Umbanhowar Jr., provided a tour of St. Olaf’s Natural Lands for students and visiting parents and alumni. The tour was an event for St. Olaf’s 2021 Homecoming and Family Weekend.
The event was a 40 minute walk in the Natural Lands, starting at the Art Barn and going through the Big Pond Loop. The route was short for anyone familiar with the Natural Lands, and about half of the time was spent with Umbanhowar answering questions and telling the — quite large — audience facts about the Natural Lands.
Umbanhowar surprised some by explaining that the restoration projects of the Natural Lands are not all aiming to recreate the land exactly as it used to be — despite possessing survey records from the 1850s. In fact, the area of the Natural Lands — and, indeed, many miles further to the north — was populated with forest.
Even the forested area of the Natural Lands constraints some species that wouldn’t have been present in the 1850s. Umbanhowar described one project, stating, “I mentioned that we were doing prairie and forest restoration; one of the other restorations that we’re doing really isn’t anything that would have been found here in the 1850s. This is an attempt to have some of the trees you would find in northern Minnesota,” Umbanhowar said.
Even the Natural Lands’ iconic Big Pond exists in the form it does because of the dedicated work of St. Olaf. “This was a bed of a really dense and very invasive type of grass called Reed Canary grass. What we actually did here was flood it out,” Umbanhowar said. The wetland area has a weir — a low dam which can regulate the flow of water in and out of the prairie. In fact, an important part of prairie restoration is to also create drought conditions, which serves to revitalize plant life.
The tour served to underscore the extent to which the Natural Lands are very intentionally cared for and managed. Umbanhowar and the team of student naturalists all work hard to track and manage invasive species and keep tabs on the general health of the ecosystem. The work also involves long term planning. Umbanhowar hopes to eventually introduce gophers into the Natural Lands, but issues with live trapping them will make this difficult.
In all, the Natural Lands are a place which showcases both the wild beauty of nature and our ability to control it — which also reminds us of our duty to take care of it.